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10 May 2013

New group to offer legal aid to Indian detainees, especially Muslims

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The Court of Last Resort is gearing up to fight the "miscarriage of justice" in India's justice system.

By Altaf Ahmad

New Delhi: Detainees languishing in Indian jails due to fabricated evidence or for lack of proper legal assistance may soon get access to legal aid via The Court of Last Resort.

Headed by retired Supreme Court justice and current chairman of the Press Council of India, Justice Markandey Katju, The Court of Last Resort – a non-governmental organisation (NGO) – has embarked on a mission to identify and address cases of "miscarriage of justice".

The group will pursue cases of detainees who spend many years in jail before being found innocent, and other detainees facing delayed trails.

"The court will be a breather, particularly for people of minority communities like Muslims charged with different offences on the basis of suspicion and pre-conceived notions that majority of Muslims are extremists," Katju told Khabar South Asia.

A mandate to help

Through the Right to Information Act (RTI), the organisation will seek detailed information about undertrials – detainees whose cases have not been resolved – and convicts languishing in jails. The group will also seek bail for those with false charges lodged against them.

Depending on the nature of charges, the group may seek a pardon or reduction of sentence by making a plea to the president or respective state governor.

"The court has the mandate of the people, who are supreme in a democracy like India. A good chunk of detainees suffering long-time detentions are usually poor [people] who do not have the sufficient financial resources for legal help," Katju said.

Popular support

The effort is widely hailed, including by mainstream political parties.

Katju "has chosen a right option to come to the rescue of victims of miscarriage of justice, especially the Muslims," Samajwadi Party (SP) secretary Ayub Ansari told Khabar. The SP rules Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state with huge Muslim population.

"Thousands of detainees languishing in jails lack proper legal aid and face inordinate delays in hearing of their cases in courts across India. Even their families face unnecessary harassment at the hands of different security agencies," he said.

"Union and state governments should lend full support to The Court of Last Resort. The judicial system in India is so slow that it takes years and decades to decide about the fate of detainees," former Information Commissioner Mohammad Mukthar Ansari told Khabar.

"Legal aid is a precious requirement to detainees and constitutes the basics of human rights. Justice delayed is justice denied, and inordinate delays in trials of detainees lead to the violation of human rights."

Ansari cited "grave prosecution lapses" in the investigation of the 1996 Lajpat Nagar bomb blast.

The Delhi High Court in November acquitted Mirza Nissar Ahmad and Mohammad Ali Bhat after 16 years of detention. They had been sentenced to death by a lower court for the blast that killed 13 and injured 38.

Leading criminal lawyer Majeed Menon and prominent filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt have joined the NGO as vice presidents and Supreme Court lawyer Fali S. Nariman will serve as its chairman. Prominent social activist Asif Azmi has also pledged his full support.

"The poor and downtrodden undergoing detention for various offences are in a dire need of legal help," Supreme Court lawyer Sushant Singh told Khabar, adding, "To prevent miscarriage of justice due to flawed investigations, the prosecution should conduct extensive investigations before framing charges against suspects."

(Courtesy: Khabar South Asia)

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