The Indian lawyer appointed to defend the sole surviving suspect from last year's Mumbai attacks was sacked Wednesday, further delaying the trial and highlighting the difficulty of pursuing this case amid public anger over what's been dubbed "India's 9/11."
For months, the trial of Mohammed Ajmal Kasab has faced major obstacles, both in finding a defense lawyer and providing enough security for the Pakistani suspect to appear in court.
Many Indian lawyers have refused to represent Mr. Kasab, while some who showed interest – if only to show that India can provide a fair trial – have been harassed by right-wing Hindu activists.
Anjali Waghmare, the state-appointed lawyer who was fired Wednesday, had faced threats for defending the suspected terrorist. Some 300 activists from two right-wing political parties, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and Shiv Sena, pelted her house with stones last month while protesters chanted jingoistic slogans.
But she was dismissed by the trial judge over claims that she had represented a victim of the attacks – who may also serve as a witness – in a compensation claim case.
Kasab, along with nine other gunmen, went on a murderous rampage in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) last November, killing more than 160 people. He became a poster boy for terrorism after he was photographed marching through the city baring his gun.
Strict security measures have been taken for Kasab to appear in court, further pushing back the start date. The trial will be held inside a 50-ft.-tall steel-and-concrete cage being built around a special courtroom inside the Arthur Road Jail, Mumbai's largest and oldest prison. A new 20-foot bomb-proof corridor has reportedly been built connecting Kasab's cell to the court.
Kasab has been charged with 12 criminal counts, including murder and waging war against India. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
Lawyers refuse to represent Kasab
India's code of criminal procedure guarantees the right of defense to anyone accused. But several law organizations in India have rejected defending Kasab as unconscionable.
In December, just after the attack, the Mumbai Metropolitan Magistrate Court's Bar Association, which includes 1,000 lawyers, passed a unanimous resolution that no member would take on the case. "Before considering this terrorist and his rights, let's consider the rights of our citizens," Rohini Wagh, president of the Bar Association, said that month. "This terror attack was not only on our country but on humanity as well. Let's not forget his deeds – this terrorist came from another country, fully trained, to kill our people."
Later, lawyers from another legal association based in Mumbai, Legal Aid Panel, also refused to take on Kasab's case.
A few independent lawyers who expressed interest in representing Kasab were pressured to withdraw their applications. Just days after the attack, some 200 activists from the Shiv Sena demonstrated outside well-known criminal lawyer Ashok Sarogi's residence, throwing stones and calling him a traitor after he came forward to take on the case. He later issued a written statement that he would not be Kasab's defense counsel.
Kasab has asked for a Pakistani lawyer to defend him, but foreign lawyers aren't constitutionally allowed to represent clients in Indian courts.
Arguing for a fair trial
One lawyer based in Mumbai, K.B.N. Lam, has expressed strong interest in being Kasab's counsel, for the sake of providing a fair trial. His office was also attacked in December.
Even those who want to send him to the gallows, he points out, will not be able to do so if there's no defense lawyer.
He stresses that it is imperative to demonstrate to the international community that India, the world's largest democracy, "can indeed provide a fair trial to an accused."
Though finding a defense lawyer for Kasab has stirred up much controversy, some Indians prefer to not pay attention to the trial – and dredge up memories of the attack.
Javed Deshmukh – a banquet hall manager at Mumbai's iconic Taj Mahal Palance and Tower, which came under siege last November for more than 60 hours – still shudders at the audacity, style, and scale of the attack. He had been on duty then, and helped rescue scores of guests trapped in one of the banquet halls.
But he says he and his colleagues are not interested in watching the trial. "There's no point in reliving the trauma," says Mr. Deshmukh. "We've moved on. We're back at work. As far as the trial is concerned, let the law take its own course."