In our cruel South Asian world, the jail and judicial system has to be the most pitiless and shameless. While the police are quick to arrest and torture all probable and improbable suspects, who are usually poor people, the judiciary works at a snail’s pace. It beggars belief that no government or political party has ever highlighted the need to inject some decency into this utterly inhumane penal and judicial system.
(Published in Daily Times, 8 August 2012)
It is reported that a Bangladeshi man has been reunited with his family after 23 years, the last 15 of which he spent in Pakistani jails for illegally entering the country. During this period he had had no contact with his family.
A 62 year-old Pakistani professor of microbiology was implicated in a murder case during a family visit to India in 1992. It took an Indian court 18 years to pronounce him guilty. Now 82, he has been allowed to visit Pakistan to see his family while his appeal is pending before the Supreme Court.
In November last year, the Indian Supreme Court expressed “shock and dismay” over the imprisonment of two Pakistanis in Indian-held Kashmir “for over 40 years without ever having faced trial.” At about the same time the Lahore High Court ordered the immediate release of 74 foreign nationals, including 32 Indians, languishing in Pakistani jails. After six months only one had been released; the others continued to be held due to lack of “paperwork.”
In our cruel South Asian world, the jail and judicial system has to be the most pitiless and shameless. While the police are quick to arrest and torture all probable and improbable suspects, who are usually poor people, the judiciary works at a snail’s pace at best. Detainees and defendants remain incarcerated indefinitely in police stations and jails, where conditions are worse than in the infamous Soviet Gulag. It beggars belief that no government or political party has ever highlighted the need to inject some decency into this utterly inhumane penal and judicial system.
Numerous instances of the miscarriage of justice have come to light in Western countries, in spite of their very sound judicial systems, including appeals and review procedures. I wonder how many innocent people in our part of the world have been hanged or otherwise died in jail and how many have been falsely convicted or imprisoned without trial. And if justice delayed is justice denied, then one can safely assert that in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh justice is denied in 100% of court cases, both criminal and civil.
Sally Clark, herself a lawyer in UK, had been wrongly jailed for life in 1999 for allegedly smothering to death her two infant sons, but cleared and released by the Court of Appeal in 2003 after spending three years in jail. This happened in a country where, for criminal convictions, guilt must be proven “beyond reasonable doubt” before jury and judge, which puts the onus fully on the prosecution to prove its case.
Sally Clark was lucky, for the death penalty had been abolished in UK, or her exoneration might have come too late. Such was the fate of the Taiwanese air force officer, Chiang Kuo-ching, who was wrongly convicted by a military court of the rape and murder of a five year-old girl and executed in 1997, at the age of 21. He was posthumously rehabilitated in 2011, when the president visited his mother to apologise. His family also received $3.3 million in compensation.
The Innocence Project in the US works for the exoneration of people wrongfully convicted of serious crimes, including murder, by using DNA evidence. Of the 250 people who have been successfully exonerated as a result of its efforts, a quarter had confessed under interrogation to serious crimes they had not committed.
In highly publicised cases, police are eager to prosecute and obtain a conviction on the basis of spurious evidence or confessions obtained under duress or torture. This is easy when jurors and even judges, not to mention the press and the public, themselves jump to conclusions regarding an accused person’s culpability based on their behavior and looks as well as hearsay and circumstantial evidence.
In Australia, there is the infamous Azaria Chamberlain case, which began in 1980 and finally concluded earlier this year. Baby Azaria disappeared on the night of 17 August 1980 on a family camping trip to Uluru (Ayers Rock). Her body was never found. Her parents, Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, insisted that Azaria had been taken from their tent by a dingo (native wild dog), but Lindy was tried for murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1982. She was released three years later when a piece of Azaria’s clothing was accidentally found in a dingo lair nearby. Finally, in 2012, after three inquests and 32 years after the event, the Chamberlains’ version of events was confirmed by a coroner and Lindy was exonerated.
Public and media opinion during the trial was saturated with “fanciful rumours and sickening jokes” complete with cartoons. Lindy Chamberlain was perceived not to be behaving as a “typical grieving mother”. It didn’t help that she belonged to the minority, conservative Christian Seventh Day Adventist sect.
Earlier this year, American Amanda Knox was convicted in Italy of the murder of her British room-mate. Her conviction was overturned on appeal after she had served four years of her 26-year sentence. Ian Leslie, in his book, “Born Liars, Why We Can’t Live without Deceit”, writes:
“Little about Knox’s behaviour during that time matched how the investigators imagined a wrongfully accused woman should conduct herself. … The Italian police’s overheated interpretation of Knox’s behaviour was a particularly pungent manifestation of a universal trait, one that frequently leads criminal investigators and juries astray: overconfidence in our ability to read someone else’s state of mind simply by looking at them.”
“It is astonishing how quick we are to draw conclusions about how a person ought to look or behave in circumstances we haven’t ourselves even come close to experiencing. … The eyes, it is said, are windows to the soul. They are not. They are organs for converting light into electro-magnetic impulses. But this has never stopped us dreaming of them that way,” Leslie adds.
And if our attitude to the plight of the countless innocent and not-so-innocent people who languish in our police stations and jails be a window to our collective national conscience, then its absence is starkly evident.
By Razi Azmi