Senior Supreme Court lawyer Mehmood Pracha’s predicament is similar to that of Public Prosecutor Rohini Salian, who recently told The Indian Express that she had been asked to go soft on Hindu extremists involved in the 2008 Malegoan blasts by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) ever since the Modi Government came to power.
Pracha alleged on 10 June that he was threatened by Anti Terrorist Squad (ATS) officer Dinesh Sharma with consequences if he did not withdraw from defending cases of those involved in terror-related cases concerning the ATS. He also alleged that he was hassled by the officer and his constables inside a trial courtroom in Jaipur while defending his clients.
Fighting terror cases involving national security has always been a tricky business for lawyers. Most of these professionals, including senior counsel, have had to face the ire and contempt of society at large for defending ‘terrorists’, on account of hysteria created by media trials before the actual trial begins in court. However, there is more to their predicament than a hostile public. Other lawyers defending ‘terrorist’ clients have also alleged that they are being pressurised to withdraw from such cases. Some have met a fatal end.
The list of lawyers being threatened and targeted by underworld dons, State agencies and anti-social elements is long. Shahid Azmi rose to prominence after Hansal Mehta directed a feature film (Shahid) on his life. Others on the list include Akbar Patel from Aurangabad, Naushad Kashimji from Mangalore and Mohammad Shoaib from Uttar Pradesh.
This is not the first time Pracha has raised an alarm. He has been defending others facing terror charges, including those accused in high-profile cases such as the German Bakery blast. In March 2014, he had gone public with the allegation that he had received threats from an underworld mafioso Ravi Pujari. He is the same mafia don whose name surfaced after the murder of Shahid Azmi.
This Delhi-based senior lawyer first came into the limelight after he defended journalist Ahmed Kazmi and secured bail for him after he was accused in the Israel embassy blast case. Mehmood calls it a turning point in his life as he decided to fight other cases of terror after coming across visible loopholes in Kazmi’s case. He maintains that his mission is not to defend alleged terrorists but to find out the truth.
In light of the recent threats received by Pracha, Tehelka interviewed him to understand the challenges and complexities lawyers face in defending their clients in terror cases.
Edited Excerpts from an interview
How disconcerting was it to be abused by an ats officer inside a courtroom in Jaipur?
I was there to represent the case of alleged Indian Mujahideen operatives. When I argued that based on evidence collected by me, my clients have been framed by the ATS to shield the real terrorists, ATS officer Dinesh Sharma started arguing on behalf of the Public Prosecutor. When I pointed out that he does not have the authority to argue, he started screaming at me for defending the terrorists and levelling false allegations against the police forces in front of the judge.
As the proceedings for the day ended and I moved towards the courtroom door, Sharma came up to me and threatened me with dire consequences if I went on defending the accused. He went to the extent of saying he would kill me if I did not stop. It was only because other juniors intervened that he refrained from physically hitting me.
It’s a shame for the country as students of a law school who had come to listen to my arguments witnessed this mockery of law inside a courtroom.
In an interview given to a US-based news web portal in 2014, you had alleged that you have been threatened by the underworld to stop defending people involved in terrorist cases. Please throw some light on that.
I received threatening calls from Ravi Pujari asking me not to talk to media. I suspect that senior police officers, including Rakesh Maria (currently Mumbai police commissioner), fearing being exposed, used him to exert pressure on me. The fact remains that I am representing Himayat Baig in the German Bakery blast case, which is quite weak. They feared that the man could be acquitted any time and larger conspiracies behind the case would be unearthed.
Do you think State agencies are hostile towards Muslim youths in cases of terror and also play a role in fabricating such cases? What could be the motive?
I don’t think it’s just about Muslim youths; it’s about the marginalised in general. I think tribals are the worst sufferers because of anti-terror legislations. There is politics behind it. The UPA government used these laws against Muslims to create a sense of insecurity among them. The BJP uses the same to polarise society in the name of security and to project an entire community as a potential threat to the country at large. These laws are used by the State agencies against tribals to facilitate the loot of resources.
I am fighting these cases with no preconceived notions, not just to get them acquitted on charges of terror but to get to the truth and unearth the larger conspiracies in the interest of the nation and the Constitution.
Do you think that it is extremely difficult for young lawyers to take up these cases?
I have no hesitation in saying yes. The kind of pressure tactics employed on lawyers of my stature to make them withdraw from certain cases speaks volumes about what they could do to young lawyers taking up similar cases.