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They should have known better

Perhaps the real concern is that a lawyer of Ram Jethmalani?s skill might succeed in saving Manu Sharma, Karan Thapar writes.

india Updated: Nov 12, 2006 02:53 IST

There’s no doubt journalists are very persuasive but I wonder how often they think about the positions they adopt or the causes they take up? I would expect that along side their passion, sharp analysis has gone into establishing the views they hold. If not, do they have the right to try and convince the rest of us? The answer should be self-evident but, alas, it’s not always what you might wish it to be. Occasionally journalists fall victim to an un-thought-out political correctness or, worse, the popular opinion of the day.

That’s what happened last week when several struck postures against Ram Jethmalani’s decision to defend Manu Sharma. In doing so they not only exposed their own prejudices and faulty thinking but, more bizarrely, placed the very cause they were championing in jeopardy.

My concern is simple. How can any credible journalist argue that Ram Jethmalani — or any other lawyer for that matter — should not defend Manu Sharma? No matter how you present this argument — and last week we saw many attempts to do so — I cannot understand the rationale for this position.

First, who a lawyer defends is a matter to be determined by his conscience. Friends and advisers may choose to influence him and if they do it’s because he’s granted them that right. But it’s not a matter for journalists to opine on. Flip the situation and you’ll see why. Would the same journalists accept Ram Jethmalani criticising them for choosing to interview alleged terrorists or apparent criminals?

When Margaret Thatcher barred the British press from interviewing members of the IRA on the grounds it gave them “the oxygen of publicity”, our entire fraternity rightly protested and condemned her decision. Surely that sword cuts both ways?

Second, in the eyes of the law — as opposed to the press — Manu Sharma is an innocent man. In fact, he stands acquitted by the lower court, although possibly wrongly so. Therefore if that acquittal is to be appealed it follows he has a right to defend himself. In turn that means he has a right to a lawyer and, ipso facto, the best he can get. Does it make sense for journalists to argue otherwise?

It’s an irrefutable sine qua non of justice that every accused has the right to a defence and a lawyer to present it for him. Anything less would undermine the system of justice we believe in. In those circumstances the High Court might become a kangaroo court, the prosecution could degenerate into vendetta and the accused would transform into a victim. Is that what these journalists are seeking?

However, it’s the third consequence of their argument that is possibly most embarrassing. It contradicts the very cause they’ve set out to champion. ‘Justice for Jessica’ is the campaign that has secured the retrial of Manu Sharma. Without this pressure from the press it may never have been achieved. But if justice for Jessica is to be more than a semi-alliterative slogan it cannot metamorphose into malice for Manu. Yet if journalists are to stop lawyers defending him that, undoubtedly, is what it will become.

Last weekend, as I heard interviews and read articles on this subject, the subtext that underlay both was hard to ignore: ‘We want justice for Jessica but without giving Manu Sharma the right to defend himself’. Once you strip the interviews of their passion and the articles are shorn off their clever phrases, this is the indefensible message left behind.

Perhaps the real concern is that a lawyer of Jethmalani’s skill might succeed in saving Manu Sharma. Given that we’re all ‘convinced’ of his guilt that would seem like a travesty of justice. Hence the opposition to Jethmalani taking up his case.

But this is to place emotion ahead of justice.

The law permits Jethmalani to try every legitimate tactic to defend his client and if he succeeds so be it. That is the law and you can’t complain just because the verdict doesn’t suit you. It may prove there are infirmities that need to be plugged, that the system has holes, that justice is less than perfect, but you can’t make it an excuse for short-circuiting procedure. Without due process the trial would be a lynching.

Remember justice has to be seen to be done — and beyond all reasonable doubt. We all know what we want but the judges have to deliver it in a fair and transparent manner. Last week, some of my colleagues forgot that.