J&K 'insensitive' to appoint Aseem Sawhney, counsel for Kathua rape accused, additional advocate-general
After his appointment by the Jammu and Kashmir government, Aseem Sawhney said he had not appeared in court for the Kathua rape and murder accused since 2 July.
Srinagar: For weeks now, the decisions made by the Jammu and Kashmir government under Governor NN Vohra have brought relief to the people of the state. But now, the government appears to have taken several steps backwards by appointing the defence lawyer who represents one of the main accused in the horrific Kathua rape and murder case as an additional advocate-general.
As expected, the promotion of Aseem Sawhney from a deputy advocate-general's position on Tuesday sparked a controversy in the Valley. The decision is being seen as a "reward for those who defended the indefensible".
The order passed by Vohra's administration called for the appointment of four senior additional advocate-generals, three advocate-generals, four deputy advocate-generals and four government advocates in both the Srinagar and Jammu wings of the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir. Sawhney figures at serial number 7 in the list.
Sawhney is the son of famous Jammu-based lawyer AK Sawhney, the main counsel of the accused in the Kathua rape and murder case. He said that though he was one of 51 lawyers representing the accused in the case, he had not appeared in court since 2 July. Sawhney added that on Wednesday, he withdrew the vakalatnama (the document that empowers a lawyer to act for and on behalf of his client) filed in the case and "would not be fighting any case against the state".
"It was my business to fight (for the Kathua accused) as a lawyer," he said. "Do lawyers stop fighting cases for militants? No, they don't. Justice has be to delivered in court, and it is the court that decides who is guilty, not the people."
According to the chargesheet filed by the investigators, the eight accused had drugged and repeatedly raped the eight-year-old girl inside a temple in Kathua district's Rasana village. Kathua is a Hindu-majority district where Muslim nomads lived in peace for decades before the men strangulated and bludgeoned the child to death with a rock.
"We should not react to this (Sawhney's appointment). We should focus on the trial," said Deepika Singh Rajawat, the lawyer representing the family of the nomad girl. "They (the government) comes out with nonsense every now and then to take the attention away from the trial."
Former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti's stand in the case is believed to be one of the main reasons why the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pulled out of the coalition with her Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Jammu and Kashmir. The regional party began to lose ground in Jammu — their main electoral constituency — after PDP leaders confronted the central leadership and because of the political fallout of the case.
Choudhary Lal Singh and Chander Prakash Ganga, the two BJP leaders in the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir government, lost their ministerial positions after participating in a rally of Hindutva activists in support of the accused in the Kathua case.
On 7 May, the Supreme Court had ordered the trial to be transferred from Kathua to Pathankot. The court also passed directions calling for a speedy, day-to-day, in-camera trial in the case, after the girl's father filed an appeal saying a fair trial was not possible in Kathua.
Last week, the victim's family petitioned the Supreme Court, asking for the accused to be shifted to the Gurdaspur jail, as a lot of time was wasted in bringing the accused to Pathankot from Kathua and it was hampering the court proceedings. The top court then ordered all the accused to be shifted to Gudaspur, also directing the governments of Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir to provide ample security cover to the trial court judge and the special public prosecutor.
So far, the trial has witnessed several dramatic scenes, including one earlier this week when an envelope that was supposed to contain the victim's hair — produced in court by the Special Investigating Team — turned out to be empty, according to Greater Kashmir. "The envelope with seven seals/stamps of the FSL (forensic science laboratory), which conducted the DNA test of the victim's hair, was opened in the court on the judge's order, but there were no hair inside it," the newspaper quoted sources as saying.
Earlier this week, a policeman accused his seniors of not depositing the victim's clothes in the malkhana (warehouse) of the police station to tamper with the evidence. Head constable Surinder Pal told the court that sub inspectors Anand Dutta and Tilka Raj had tried to intimidate him into recording backdated entries when they submitted "concocted" evidence the next day.
Gowhar Geelani, a political commentator based in Srinagar, said the latest development in the case — Sawhney's appointment — was "insensitive on multiple counts".
"One, someone accused of rape or someone fighting a case for a rape accused should not have been given such a responsibility for it sends a message that those supporting the rape accused are being encouraged, patronised and rewarded by the government," Geelani said. "Two, it also showcases gender insensitivity and hints at attempts to obstruct justice for the eight-year-old girl. If people at the helm are seen rewarding those sympathetic to the rape accused, it sends the wrong message."
Hitting out at the Jammu and Kashmir government after Sawhney's appointment, chief of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimee Asaduddin Owaisi said Prime Minister Narendra Modi's promises of "Beti Bachao, Beti Padao", abolishing triple talaq and equal rights for women were "all lies".
"Aseem Sawhney, a lawyer representing the main accused in the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim Bakerwal girl in Kathua, has been appointed an additional advocate-general by the Jammu and Kashmir government," he tweeted. "Beti Bachao is a bloody load of... Modi talks about triple talaq and Muslim women. All lies."
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