Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Be careful what you wish for

In the days following the Delhi gangrape in December last year, a justifiably outraged public rightly demanded swift action by the police. When 5 men were arrested and charged with the crime there were calls for a swift trial followed by the death penalty. Some commentators even called for summary execution.

Yesterday the news broke that Ram Singh, one of the 5 accused, was found hanging in his Tihar cell. Job done and justice delivered? Or was it another example of the failings of India's crumbling, corrupt and decrepit system for administering criminal justice?

No one, least of all those who had called for the death penalty, should rejoice at this turn of events. Ram Singh's death in custody is as much a tragedy for India's justice system as the original crime was a brutally grim reminder of how we as a society treat our women. Before we condemn him with loose comments to the effect that he got what was deservedly coming to him anyway, lets not forget that he was accused of a major and horrific crime, not yet convicted by a proper court of law after due process.

This matters to each and every citizen of India. When the police investigate a crime they often arrest a suspect. Just as any of us could become the victim of crime so too can any one of us be picked up as a suspect. A suspect - potentially one of us, remember – has a right to his day in court, to answer to the charge and to test the prosecution's case that he is guilty. During the time that the suspect is in custody his - or her - safety and welfare is the responsibility of the police, the courts and the rest of the state apparatus that make up the criminal justice system.

And when the suspect dies under suspicious circumstances in jail before his trial has concluded it is not summary justice. It is a tragedy for everyone involved: for the original victim’s family because they have been denied knowing for certain that the right man has been convicted and punished; for the justice system because it has failed to deliver justice in an open and transparent  way; and it is a tragedy for all of us because our trust and faith in the ability of the police to do their job properly is eroded.  

How Ram Singh came to meet his end is now the subject of another investigation. But the fact of his death under suspicious circumstances when in custody, in theory at least the safest place possible, is unacceptable and shocking. Any number of possibilities come to mind but it is difficult to believe that the system that allowed this to happen will be capable of getting to the truth of what happened in that jail cell.