The new National Government has pledged to give priority to the restoration and streamlining of the Judicial system which virtually broke down with its politicization some 15 years ago.
One of the areas where the injustice of the judicial system is seen most starkly is behind bars—in the prisons. Today, as we conclude the Annual Prisoners’ Week, some facts given by the widely respected human rights lawyer Kalyananda Thiranagama would, we hope, open prison doors and make the blind see.
Philosopher Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, has said justice would not be served until those who were unaffected are as outraged as those who are. The age of enlightenment leader Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, has said it is better to risk saving a guilty person than to condemn an innocent one.
Mr. Thiranagama, Executive Director of the Lawyers for Human Rights Development, reveals in his article the shocking truth that in our prisons there are thousands of remand prisoners languishing in custody for years without being charged or brought to trial within a reasonable time.
According to the figures given by him, for any given year after 2004 there were more than 800 remand prisoners languishing in jail for more than two years. In 2012 there were 486 remand prisoners who had been in remand custody for more than 3 years—with 136 of them having languished for more than five years in remand custody.
Mr. Thiranagama also reveals that most of the prisoners held in long term custody without bail are not persons involved in terrorist activities, hired assassins, gang robbers, big drug traffickers or persons involved in other categories of serious crimes.
He says that among those in remand custody without bail are persons who have incurred the displeasure of the police for some reason. Police see to it that several unsolved crimes in different Police areas are put to the account of such persons so that they can object to bail on the ground that the suspect is a dangerous criminal and generally the Courts are reluctant to release such persons on bail. There are people languishing in jail for years without being able to furnish heavy cash bail ordered by the High Court. There are also others in remand prison because they are poor and powerless and have no sureties acceptable to Court.
The human rights activist had also referred to abuses of the law by the police and other interested parties. He says some Police officers have made it a practice to produce in Courts persons arrested in possession of small quantities of ganja or other drugs as persons engaging in trafficking of them deliberately for the purpose of preventing them from obtaining bail and keeping them in long term custody without bail at the mercy of the police.
Going to the core of the crisis, Mr. Thiranagama says a majority of prisoners languish in jail not due to guilt, but due to poverty. These poor people could not make an application for bail to the High Court due to their poverty or could not pay the heavy bail ordered by the court. Most prisoners say that they have to spend a minimum of Rs. 50,000 to get the services of a lawyer to make an application for bail to the High Court.
The writer says this situation has been highlighted by US President Lyndon Johnson when he signed the Bail Reforms Act in 1966. “This archaic, unjust and virtually unexamined system has prevailed since the Judiciary Act of 1789. The main purpose of bail is to ensure that an accused person will return for trial if he or she is released after arrest. How is that purpose met under the present system? The suspect with means can afford to pay bail. He or she can afford to buy freedom. But poorer suspects cannot pay the price. They languish in jail for weeks, months and perhaps even years before trial. They do not stay in jail because they are guilty. The do not stay in jail because any sentence has been passed. They do not stay in jail because there are any more likely to flee before trial. They stay in jail for one reason only – because they are poor”.