Ram Jethmalani, who spent over seven decades in Bar, argued scores of high-profile cases varying from criminal to constitutional matters besides economic and commercial disputes, emerging as a “roaring tiger” in black robes when it came to defending his clients.
As a lawyer, Jethmalani rose to fame in 1959 when he was in a team of prosecutors in the KM Nanavati vs State of Maharashtra case in which a Naval commander was tried for the murder of his wife’s lover. This was among the last cases to be heard as a jury trial in India, as the government abolished jury trials soon thereafter.
Jethmalani, who had not been keeping well for the last few months, had stopped attending court hearings but during the last 10 years, he appeared in some of the most sensitive criminal cases.
He himself had filed a public interest litigation on the issue of black money during the previous UPA regime following which the Supreme Court had passed a slew of directions for the government.
The legendary lawyer is known for representing people from various walks of life including politicians from across the political spectrum, big businessmen, corporate houses, Bollywood actors and underworld dons.
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He has the distinction of appearing before the court in Pakistan’s Karachi in the pre-independence era after he graduated in law at the age of 17 years and moved to India in 1948 after the partition.
The most important case he dealt immediately after Partition was the one in which he won a legal battle opposing the Bombay Refugees Act that allowed the State to relocate, sequester and question refugees anytime.
Jethmalani, who used to be described by legal luminaries as the “best mind in criminal law”, was one of the most sought after advocates and during his career he appeared in several high-profile criminal cases in various trial courts and high courts of the country, besides the Supreme Court.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said Jethmalani was a “giant of a man” with a rare combination of constitutional expertise and razor-sharp understanding of criminal law, and was a “roaring tiger” when it came to defending his clients.
Before he got success in politics, Jethmalani was among the legal luminaries to oppose the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi government and the clamping of the Maintenance of Internal Security Act, a controversial law mandating authorities to make arbitrary arrests and jail those opposing her decisions.
Jethmalani defended accused Kehar Singh and Balbir Singh in the Indira Gandhi assassination case. He won acquittal for Balbir Singh and when Singh’s son, Rajinder Singh, was sacked from a government job, he employed him in his office.
The lawyers who worked with Jethmalani describe him as a “real champion of human rights”. In his long career, he took up several cases of alleged illegal detention, including that of Sant Longowal during the Punjab militancy in 1980s.
Besides the Indira Gandhi assassination case, he also defended Rajiv Gandhi’s killers in the Madras High Court in 2011. Jethmalani also defended Delhi University’s Professor SAR Geelani, who was acquitted by the Supreme Court in the Parliament attack case in 2001.
He was also a lawyer for Amit Shah when he was facing a charge in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh encounter case of Gujarat in which he was later discharged.
He appeared for Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh in the stock market scams, in the JMM bribery case against Narasimha Rao and appeared for Anil Ambani’s Reliance Natural Resources Ltd in the dispute between the Ambani brothers over gas supply. He also represented Manu Sharma, son of an influential Congress leader, in the Jessica Lall murder case.
Jethmalani was the lead petitioner in the black money case during the previous UPA regime in the Supreme Court and he also represented Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal in the civil and criminal defamation cases filed by BJP leader Arun Jaitley against him.
He was defence lawyer in many cases – for BJP veteran L K Advani in the Jain Hawala case, late AIADMK supremo Jayalalithaa in a disproportionate asset case, DMK leader Kanimozhi in the 2G scam, RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav in the fodder scam and Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa in a mining scam. He had also argued for actor Sanjay Dutt’s bail before the Supreme Court in the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts.
When the Bofors pay off case had emerged, he had posed 10 questions per day to Rajiv Gandhi. He also later defended Hinduja brothers in this case. He had also appeared for Mumbai underworld don Haji Mastan in several cases of smuggling.
He represented self-styled godman Asaram Bapu in a rape case involving a minor girl in Jodhpur in 2013.