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Why this Mumbai lawyer sued China for $2.3tn over the coronavirus outbreak

Ashish Sohani approached the International Criminal Court last week, arguing that China's attempts at downplaying the contagion was "treason against humanity"

Mumbai-based lawyer Ashish Sohani.
Mumbai-based lawyer Ashish Sohani.

Around the end of March, Mumbai-based lawyer Ashish Sohani was discussing the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus with his family over dinner. He was irked at China’s attempts at suppressing information and downplaying the contagion in the initial months of the outbreak, something he believed was responsible for its global spread.

“I told my mother, China has to compensate for the harm it has done," he recalls. His mother, a former judge at the family court in Bandra, Mumbai, told him, “If you feel so, put it on a piece of paper and file it (in the court)."

“At the time, I had no idea how to go about it," Sohani tells Lounge on the phone. So he started reading up news articles, international law, and gathering ‘evidence’. On 14 April, the 32-year-old filed a petition in the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Netherlands, suing the Chinese premier Xi Jinping and four other officials for criminal negligence, wilful suppression of information and “treason against humanity".

“The cause and reason is only and only the political opacity and lack of prompt response at the behest of the Chinese authorities," his petition reads. It demands compensation for the loss of lives and economic damage to the Indian government and the people of India. A total of $2.5 trillion.

Sohani is hardly the first to pursue legal action against China. In recent weeks, two cases have been filed in the US suing the Chinese government for trillions of dollars – one demanding compensation for human and economic suffering, another for “creation and release, accidental or otherwise" of covid-19. Earlier this month, Dr Adish Aggarwala, president of International Council of Jurists (ICJ) and the author of Narendra Modi: A Charismatic & Visionary Statesman, also filed an email complaint with the United Nations Human Rights Council alleging that the virus was China’s conspiracy at “biological warfare".

Sohani’s petition doesn’t make any such outlandish claims (“I can’t prove it," he says). His detailed, 33-page plea is based mainly on news reports published over the last three months, and draws out a sequence of events to support his claim of systematic negligence. China’s acts, the petition alleges, had violated articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and World Health Organization regulations. China, it adds, had committed a "crime against humanity" under the Rome Statute of the ICC by carrying out an “inhumane act...intentionally causing great suffering".

Is he alleging that China intended to cause the pandemic? “Intention is difficult to prove," Sohani says. “The mere actions of a person are more than enough to assume that the intention was there." Why then did his petition allege that, by re-opening wet markets in Wuhan, China was “already preparing for another Pandemic, bigger and deadlier this time"? “That’s me going ahead and making a futuristic accusation," he says.

Legal experts are divided over the outcome of such lawsuits. Stephen Carter, professor of Law at Yale University, writes in his Bloomberg column that China is immune to class-action lawsuits in the US because of sovereign immunity. Peter Tzeng, an attorney specializing in international law, too, expresses skepticism about the legal challenges in the European Journal of International Law, adding that these could work better to score political victories.

But Sohani is unfazed. “Our work as lawyers is to take law in our own hands and refer it with facts. And it’s up to them [the courts] to decide if the case merits attention."

The petition asks for compensation to be paid to the Indian government. But it wasn’t because anyone from the government put him on to it, he insists. While he did send a copy of the petition to Prime Minister Modi and Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray, he hasn't heard from them. “I’m sure they’re very busy people," he says.

Sohani graduated with an LLB from Mumbai University in 2017. For most of the past three years, he dealt in bail matters and arbitrated a few family disputes. Ever since he made headlines for the complaint, he claims to have received a lot of congratulatory messages and “encouragement".

Sohani is aware that to some his action may come across as a publicity stunt. "There are two kinds of people in the world," he says. “Those who think, and those who do...." He knows which group he fits in with.

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