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The Indian government’s move to abrogate Article 370 of the Constitution and place restrictions in the erstwhile State of Jammu & Kashmir has been met with opprobrium from lawyers abroad. The Bar Council of England and Wales and the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (BHRC) have written a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, expressing serious concern about the detention of lawyers and civilians in the region.
The UK-based lawyers’ associations have cited the detention of prominent lawyers in Kashmir ever since the abrogation on August 5 under the Public Safety Act. They have specifically called into question the arrests of President of the Jammu & Kashmir High Court Bar Association of Jammu and Kashmir Mian Abdul Qayoom, its former President Nazir Ahmad Ronga, as well as Advocates Abdul Salam Rather (President, Baramulla District Bar Association) and Fayad Sodagar (President, Anantnag District Bar Association). The letter states,
“We understand that at least 300 people, including lawyers and civilians, have been detained under the Act and can be held by the authorities for up to two years without trial. Moreover, the government’s failure to publish the number detained adds further cause for alarm about their security.”
Signed by Chair of the Bar Council Richard Atkins QC and Chair of the BHRC Schona Jolly QC, the letter goes on to state that the UN Basic Principles of the Role of Lawyers (1990) require states to ensure that lawyers are free to perform their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference.
“Lawyers should not suffer or be threatened with sanctions for any action taken in accordance with their professional duties. The security of lawyers should be adequately safeguarded by the authorities. Lawyers should not be identified with their clients’ causes, and like other citizens, lawyers are entitled to freedom of expression, belief, association and assembly.”
The lawyers’ bodies have also expressed concern as to the communications blackout in Jammu & Kashmir, acknowledging that while landlines and some mobile services have been restored, internet services remain blocked.
The letter also cites reports of the justice system in the Kashmir Valley being in a state of near collapse. Citing a report in The Wire, the letter states,
“It has been reported that there are an estimated 500 habeas corpus cases pending for 2019, with over 330 of these filed after 5 August 2019. All of this has resulted in a lack of availability of effective legal representation and hindered the right to a fair and speedy trial. In circumstances in which grave and widespread human rights violations are being alleged, disabling the justice system substantially compounds the crisis. We are also concerned that the speed of access to justice on critical human rights’ concerns may defeat the essence of the rights in question.”
The failure of the government to allow independent investigators into the Kashmir Valley to ensure checks on violations of domestic and international law are being impeded, the letter further states. It goes on to remind the Prime Minister that India has ratified the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
Thus, the UK Bar Council and the BHRC have urged the Prime Minister to:
“…lift all restrictions, restore internet and full communications access to the region, and to publish the names of all those individuals, including lawyers, who have been detained. Those who remain detained must be afforded access to proper legal representation.”
Copies of the letter have also been sent to Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and the Bar Council of India.
Before the Supreme Court, the Centre yesterday made a vehement defence of the abrogation and the consequent restrictions place in Kashmir. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta claimed that services in the Valley were returning to normalcy. He further stated orders under Section 144 CrPC have been removed from all 202 police stations, with the exception of restrictions at night. Mehta also said that all. government offices and courts are fully functional. Since August 5, people have filed about 36,492 cases in the region and around 52,096 cases have been disposed of by courts, including the lower judiciary and the High Court, he claimed.