News sources report that Shahid Azmi, the lawyer representing 26/11 accused Fahim Ansari, has been killed after assailants broke into his office and shot him twice at point-blank range. The assailants are still unidentified and we should not rush to conclusions about who they were or the intention behind this killing. However, it is not unlikely that the motivation was related to his defense of Fahim Ansari and his previous defense of other high profile accused terrorists. 26/11 accused Ajmal Kasab’s initial lawyer Anjali Waghmare was threatened before she eventually was removed from the case. KP Pawar, Kasab’s current lawyer, has been provided heavy security out of fears over the lawyer’s safety. We will have to wait to find out if Shahid Azmi was provided with any similar security, and if so, what failure took place.
Concerns over lawyer safety are not just limited to the 26/11 trials though. In Uttar Pradesh, in 2008, Mohammed Shoaib, a lawyer who had taken up the case of a terror accused was beaten by his fellow lawyers. Similar attacks or threatened attacks on lawyers have been reported in terror cases across the country, along with lawyers involved in defending accused naxalites or those involved in communal violence. Emotions obviously run high in these cases, and entire communities are invested in their outcome . However, no matter what we think of the accused, they must have a right to a defense, and lawyers must be free to defend them without any fear to their personal safety. Anything less is a blow to the democratic institutions that so many have fought so hard to create and protect.
Lawyers have a bond – a bond that unites prosecutors and defense attorneys, that brings together small town lawyers with the biggest name Supreme Court advocates. It’s a bond that invests us in solidarity with the plight of lawyers who go in to the streets in Pakistan or advocates who find themselves behind bars in China – it stretches across oceans. We lawyers are all united by a dedication to solve our societies’ problems not by the barrel of the gun or the twisted logic of revenge, but by the rule of law. We will have to wait to see how events unfold in the days ahead. Still, tonight, it seems not just a man was killed, but also a lawyer.