Imagine it was you

by Nooshin Erfani

Imagine you and your friend are walking along a track through the fields, on your way to the general store in town. The sun is out, and the birds are chirping, and you are in a good mood ‘cause you got paid today. You look to the side of the track, a little ahead of you, and see something thrown to the ground. When you pick it up, you realize it is a small bag, like the one your mum keeps her make-up in, and it has a camera and some cash in it. You take it with you, thinking to hand it in at the police station, ‘cause your mum would skin you if you don’t.

But first, your friend insists you stop at the store to buy a coke. There are cops at the store too, and one of them notices the bag in your hand. He asks where you found it, and what you’re doing with it, and why you haven’t handed it in if you “found” it. They take you and your friend in to the station, for questioning. Then they tell you that a woman has been killed that morning, and that the bag belonged to her. And now you are their chief suspects, you get arrested and are held in remand until your bail hearings and trial.

Now, I am not saying that that is what happened to the two men who were arrested in Dullstroom last month for torturing and murdering a 78-year old woman (they were found in possession of her digital camera and money). But it is possible. As individuals, none of us can know what happened. That’s why we have an impartial, independent judicial system. To look for facts and to mete out justice based on the truth. Not on emotions and subjectivity or on personal beliefs.

This is why I am so grateful for the South African Constitution, which gives us these protections. Or else we would all be subject to the mob mentality that’s illustrated by the comments people leave online at the end of crime stories. “If there’s smoke, there’s fire, the police wouldn’t arrest an innocent person”, “let them rot in the black hole”, “hang them”, “let them out on bail, so I can show them real justice”. I’ve watered them down, but you get the idea.

It’s like they are playing hangman, building up scaffolding for their own brand of vigilante “justice”. Of course, if they themselves were being accused of something, they’d cling tightest to their rights, and make the most noise if the rules were not strictly enforced.

It is a long road between being accused of a crime, and being convicted for it. Sometime it is too long and torturous (as described by my colleague Ruth in her “Court Drama” blog post) but we need to strengthen our entire criminal justice system, from the police to the courts to the prisons, to make sure that the eventual journey is a just and fair one.

We have to uphold the notion of “innocent until proven guilty” and we have to fight for the basic human rights of everyone, even those who are guilty. Because that’s what makes us civilised. And because a miscarriage of justice could happen to any of us. Because it could be you.

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About witsjusticeproject
The Wits Justice Project combines journalism, advocacy, law and education to make the criminal justice system work better for all.

One Response to Imagine it was you

  1. Nice piece Nooshin! Look forward to more…

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