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Lawyers, activists protest against India's new criminal laws

Lawyers, activists protest against India's new criminal laws
Lawyers in India fear old cases could drag on, as the ruling deadlines apply only to new cases after July 1.
PHOTO: Reuters

NEW DELHI — Lawyers and activists in India are urging Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government to put on hold three sets of new criminal laws, arguing they will increase litigation in an already overburdened justice system and give excessive powers to the police.

India in July replaced its criminal justice system — the Indian Penal Code of 1860, the 1973 Code of Criminal Procedure and the Indian Evidence Act of 1872 — with new laws.

The new laws, in force since July 1, expand police powers on pre-trial detention of an accused and introduce the death penalty for the gang-rape of women aged under 18, among other provisions.

They also mandate that judges issue written rulings within 45 days after a trial ends and for charges to be framed within 60 days of the first court hearing in a case.

Lawyers in India fear old cases could drag on, as the ruling deadlines apply only to new cases after July 1. And there is confusion over which laws — old or new — will apply to cases registered after July 1 for a crime committed before that date.

"It only increases and complicates work for lawyers," said Delhi-based lawyer Shadan Farasat, adding that many provisions will need to be interpreted afresh by the courts, which could increase litigation.

Two lawyer associations with more than 13,000 members in the southern state of Tamil Nadu have announced plans to boycott court work on July 8 in protest against the laws.

India's Home Ministry and Law Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

India says thousands of judiciary officials, public prosecutors and police officers have been trained in how to apply the new laws.

Modi's government says there are "various misconceptions" being spread about the laws, which are "victim-centric" and will make the system the "most modern" in the world.

"The new laws have made forensic investigation mandatory in offences punishable by (a jail term of) seven years or more, which will help speed up justice and take the conviction rate up to 90 per cent," the government said last week.

The new laws also add punishment for crimes such as mob lynching and hate speeches, but have faced criticism for not offering any protection to men if they are raped.

India's Constitution empowers states to modify such laws. In Karnataka state, the government has said it will make more than 20 changes to the new laws, criticising provisions it says criminalise even a hunger strike against the government in protest.

Human rights group Amnesty says Indian authorities must "immediately repeal" the new laws as they could allow for police abuse.

Police can now seek the same maximum 15-day custody as earlier, but it can be done in whole or part over a longer timeframe. Older laws allowed such custody to be exhausted only within the first 15 days of an arrest.

This "provides a fertile breeding ground for torture and other ill-treatment", Amnesty said.

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