How do you decide whether a person arrested for an offence is guilty or innocent? In India, if it's an act of terror, the name of the accused is sufficed. A Muslim is guilty without trial and nobody should defend him. Violent attacks on lawyers of terror accused, many a times even on the court premises, are justified in the name of patriotism.
While we usually blame the police of shoddy investigations and falsely implicating the innocents, when it comes to terror cases, their work is invariably deemed perfect. That investigators try to fill the blanks as quickly as possible to claim efficiency was evident in the Mecca Masjid bombing in Hyderabad in which the court acquitted 17 persons and it was found that the cops were following a completely wrong lead. The accused are forced to stay in jail (in Chennai blast case as long as 14 years) while the trial lingers, which not only ruins their lives but also nurtures extreme resentment against the State. This is why the job of defence lawyers gathers importance.
‘Out of Court Settlement’, a documentary by Shubhradeep Chakravorty, tries to capture the lives of defence lawyers of terror accused from all across India. Compelling, inspiring and tragic at the same time, the experiences of these lawyers need to be told and retold. While Chakravorty takes a brave step to take up this issue, he seems to lose objectivity and depth as the film proceeds. Not only is this film bereft of varied opinions, it also does not offer any answers to the questions it raises despite getting prominent lawyers like Soli Sorabjee and Ram Jethmalani talk on the issue .
Compelling, inspiring and tragic at the same time, the experiences of these lawyers need to be told and retold. While Chakravorty takes a brave step to take up this issue, he seems to lose objectivity and depth as the film proceeds.
The credit has to be given to the filmmaker for including almost all the incidents of threats or attacks on defence lawyers which would have required lot of travel and long hours of shooting. The viewer is taken from Uttar Pradesh to Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat et al. Chakravorty does well by using visually-attractive illustrations to help the viewer relate to the incidents.
While the murders of advocates Shahid Azmi and Naushad Kashimji are dealt with in detail, experiences of lawyers who took up the cases of those arrested for serial blasts in Uttar Pradesh in 2007 and SIMI activists in Madhya Pradesh also evoke strong reactions.
The film revisits the case of advocate Shahid Azmi who was killed at his office in Mumbai in 2010. Azmi was defending one of the 26/11 accused Fahim Ansari at that time and the investigators claimed that members of Bharat Nepali gang shot him. Chakravorty manages to tell a heart-rending tale with interviews of the family members and colleagues, but he misses out on important details from Azmi's past.
The film revisits the case of advocate Shahid Azmi who was killed at his office in Mumbai in 2010. Azmi was defending one of the 26/11 accused Fahim Ansari at that time and the investigators claimed that members of Bharat Nepali gang shot him.
The entire focus in the film is laid on his style of functioning, the threats he faced and the day of the murder. The viewers don't get to know that Azmi was arrested at age 14 during the 1992 Mumbai riots, went to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir but returned disillusioned, was arrested again under TADA and later acquitted. He completed his studies while in jail and started defending those he felt were being falsely implicated in terror cases. These formative years, which made Azmi the man he was, could have been dealt in a better way.
The film moves on to the case of another advocate Naushad Kashimji who was done to death near his Mangalore-based apartment complex in 2009. Kashimji was defending Rashid Malbari, accused of being associated with underworld don Chhota Shakeel. The slain advocate’s senior K Purushotham Poojary named four police personnel claiming that they planned the killing since Kashimji was repeatedly bringing out loopholes in the police’s investigations.
Chakravorty does well to reconstruct the sequence of murder with help from Poojary, but ends up buying the conspiracy version instead of taking an objective position. Being a former journalist, he should have known how important it is listen to both the sides and include their comments. Though the film tells us that police arrested three persons allegedly hired by underworld don Ravi Poojari to kill Kashimji, the focus remains on the conspiracy hatched by the policemen.
Chakravorty does well to reconstruct the sequence of murder with help from Poojary, but ends up buying the conspiracy version instead of taking an objective position. Being a former journalist, he should have known how important it is listen to both the sides and include their comments.
The film does better while talking about assaults on lawyers in Uttar Pradesh. The serials blasts in Uttar Pradesh which rocked the courts of Faizabad, Lucknow and Varanasi killed 15 people and injuring 57 others in 2007. Many of the victims were lawyers which led to the bar associations deciding not to defend those arrested for these blasts. The defence lawyers, some of them from other cities, who tried to appear for the accused were beaten up, their offices torched and clothes torn. The victims present their views eloquently while Chakravorty also manages a view from the other side here which despite being a typical, diplomatic comment, lends the viewer a better understanding of the scenario.
The Madhya Pradesh incident in which advocate Noor Mohammad of Ujjain was heckled when he appeared to secure bail of SIMI activists at Dhar court, is also more telling because of a video clipping of the original incident.
The attacks on defence lawyers is a very important issue that needs better treatment. As senior advocate Ram Jethmalani points out in the film, such acts of violence against the advocates was not serving any purpose as the case can’t proceed in absence of a defence lawyer and that will only delay the justice whether it’s about punishing the guilty or acquitting the innocents. Weak investigations needs to be questioned in the court and by doing so, the defence lawyers are only doing their duty which is to uphold the law of the land.
But the film 'Out of Court Settlement' only raises the issues without providing the solutions. Should we have a protection programme for defence lawyers just like the one we are talking about for witnesses or the current provisions under IPC and CrPC sufficient to handle such cases? Should the bar associations be barred from passing resolutions against defending terror accused?
A presentation of both sides also would have helped the viewers decide for themselves rather than the filmmaker doing the handholding. Despite all that, it's still a brave attempt that needs to be applauded.