9 MAY 2018
For a fair trial
Shifting the Kathua rape case to another State is a warranted step
In shifting the case of the abduction and gang rape of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua district in Jammu and Kashmir to Pathankot in the neighbouring State of Punjab, the Supreme Court has taken the first necessary step towards ensuring a fair trial. It is unfortunate that despite the horrific nature of the crime, which took place over several days in January, when thegirl from the nomadic Bakherwal community went missing, some sought to see the incident along sectarian lines. Contradictions on communal and political lines came to the fore. The formation of a Hindu group in support of those arrested by the J&K Police Crime Branch, and the action of some lawyers in Kathua in heckling the police when they came to file the charge sheet, contributed to the impression that the atmosphere in the town is too vitiated for the conduct of a fair trial. In addition, sections of society, including political parties and lawyers, demanded that the Crime Branch investigation was not fair and that it should be handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation. Fortunately, the Supreme Court has not countenanced this demand. Considering that the investigation was conducted in a fairly quick manner and the charge sheet was ready within two months, there is no legal reason for the probe to be taken out of the hands of the police and handed over to another agency. In the normal course, only deliberate inaction on the part of the State police is a reasonable ground for shifting the probe to another agency.
The transfer of a criminal trial from one State to another is an extraordinary step that the Supreme Court alone is empowered to take. The State out of whose jurisdiction the case is taken may have reason to feel aggrieved as it is seen as a reflection of its handling of law and order. However, in this case, the reason for transferring the Kathua case to Pathankot is no reflection on J&K. It has been done solely in the interest of a fair and speedy trial. The court has reasoned that for a genuinely fair trial, “there has to be a free atmosphere, where the victims, the accused and the witnesses feel safe”. In addition, the court has passed directions necessary to ensure a speedy trial too: day-to-day hearings, no unnecessary adjournments, and no delay between the examination of witnesses and their cross-examination. In a departure from the rule that the prosecutor is appointed by the State to which a case is transferred, the apex court has allowed J&K to appoint a public prosecutor to conduct this case. The trial will also be in camera. The court’s directions should inspire confidence in the justice system and instill courage among the witnesses. It is now up to the investigators and prosecutors to ensure that the guilty are punished.
The age of Putin
The Russian President begins a new term with huge economic and foreign policy challenges
Vladimir Putin, who has maintained a tight grip on power in Russia for almost two decades, begins his fourth term as President at a time when the country is going through a difficult period, economically and diplomatically. Widely credited with stabilising post-Soviet Russia during his first two terms after the chaos of the Boris Yeltsin years, Mr. Putin presents himself as a strongman seeking to restore Russia’s lost glory. This image has helped him bolster his popularity. In the March presidential election he won 77% of the popular vote, the largest margin for any post-Soviet leader. That majority is a reminder of the suffocating grip that Mr. Putin and his coterie have on the democratic process. Russia’s most prominent opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, was barred from contesting the election, which rendered the presidential race a formality for the re-coronation of Mr. Putin. One of his biggest promises is stability, both political and economic. The rising number of protests in Moscow and elsewhere against Mr. Putin’s rule may not be difficult for him to overcome — and he faces the daunting task of fixing the economy and reversing the course of a confrontational foreign policy. In his inaugural speech, Mr. Putin said he would stay focussed on domestic issues in his new term, particularly the economy, which has just recovered from a painful recession.
Mr. Putin’s muscular foreign policy is a more solid source of public support for him. He has always been fierce in his defence of Russia’s influence in its historical backyard and has not shied away from taking measures to assert that influence. In 2008 he sent troops to Georgia, and in 2014 he annexed Crimea — actions that have contributed to Russia’s deteriorating ties with the West. In 2015, Russia’s intervention in Syria not only dragged the country deeper into a complex civil war but also put ties with the U.S. under greater strain. The allegations that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election have increased the hostility between the one-time Cold War rivals. In the short term, Mr. Putin succeeded in creating the impression that Russia is back on the global stage. But it is not certain whether his confrontational foreign policy, which has attracted sanctions from the West and hurt the already weak Russian economy, will yield the desired strategic benefits. Mr. Putin has turned to China in recent years, signing a 30-year, $400-billion gas agreement, and enhancing cooperation on contentious global issues such as Iran, Syria and North Korea. This may not be enough of a balancing act, as it is not clear whether Beijing, given its lack of appetite for picking fights with the West, will back Moscow in this new Cold War beyond a point. As he begins another term, Mr. Putin’s Russia looks increasingly like a managed dictatorship with a troubled economy and dwindling influence. It is to be seen where he takes the country in the next six years.