The Law Society has called on the Indian authorities to protect the lawyers who will represent five men charged with the rape and murder of a 23-year-old medical student in Delhi in December.
Local lawyers have refused to represent the suspects.
The five appeared in court yesterday to be charged with the offences. (A sixth defendant, who claims to be a juvenile, is being dealt with separately.) It is reported that one lawyer did offer to represent the men, but that the court will have to appoint lawyers.
A Law Society spokesman said: 'It is a basic principle of the rule of the law that everyone accused of a crime, no matter how unpleasant, is entitled to representation. Strong feelings surround this case, but the onus is on the Indian authorities to ensure that lawyers representing these defendants are properly protected and are able to ensure that the defendants receive a fair trial.'
The Bar Council and the Bar Human Rights Committee have voiced concern that two local bodies, the Saket Bar Association and the Delhi Bar Association, have resolved not to represent the defendants.
In a joint statement they said: 'The presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial are fundamental human rights, and cornerstones of democracy. Effective legal representation is a central component of a fair trial.
'We believe firmly that no one should be deprived of the right to legal representation due to the nature of what they are alleged to have committed. Indeed, those accused of the most pernicious crimes have the greatest need for effective and fearless representation.'
They added: 'We are confident that the Indian bar, and their respective associations, share our respect for, and commitment to, the rule of law and we call upon them to reflect those values by representing those accused without fear or favour, and we hope that they will be supported in so doing.'
The Guardian reported that SK Singh, a supreme court advocate representing the victim's family, said as he left court after the hearing yesterday: 'Natural justice will have to be followed in this case. The Indian constitution guarantees equality before the law. They [the accused] have to be properly defended. Otherwise how can it be a fair trial?'