November 29, 2020

By Shahrazad Agha


ISLAMABAD

Her case could be an archetype of a deeply flawed criminal justice system, where people are often convicted for crimes they have not committed, whiling away years of their lives.

Rani Bibi spent the better half of her life locked behind bars, with no one from her family coming to meet her. She washed clothes, cleaned floors and looked after babies – all of this work that was for other people, mainly authorities in prison. She heard of her father dying in another jail, but never had a chance to see his funeral. She heard of her mother, brother and cousin being acquitted even though they were all jailed at the same time, but Rani was forgotten inside prison for 19 years.



Now, out of jail since 2019, she spends her days living in a small, one room house in the outskirts of Islamabad. Wrongfully convicted of murder, she is now fighting to bring reform to the criminal justice system. If she wins this, the case could have huge impact for thousands of innocent people locked up for years for serious crimes they never committed.

After so long, Rani is a free woman – but it is not how she imagined freedom to be. Who will account for her lost years?

THE CASE

Rani Bibi was a child bride at the age of 14 back in 1998. While it was a future of doom spelt out for her being married to an older man at such a young age, she had little idea what would happen next.

Rani was arrested and charged with the murder of her husband. Even though the police found no physical evidence connecting her to the crime, she was still arrested and even convicted. The only reasons given were that she was last seen with her husband before his disappearance.

Not only did the legal system pin the crime of murder on a minor girl and jailed her for so long, it also ignored her appeals.

When Rani filed an appeal at the Lahore High Court first, the superintendent at the District Jail in Jhang never got her signature or her thumb print on the documents leaving it ineffectual.

It was not until was discovered by the late human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir, who fought her case to the finish, finally helping her get free.

According to representatives from AGHS (Asma Jahangir Legal Aid Cell), such cases are common in prison, where young women and men are kept for so long that even family members forget about them. It is especially true of young women, who often take the blame for a crime committed by male relatives. “Society convinces them to do so because the male relatives are deemed more important, sometimes as bread winners, and so they tell the woman or girl that it would be better if she does time instead,” says Robina Shaheen of the AGHS. “There are hundreds of such women in prison who are just lying there, forgotten by their own families. And they all have their sob stories. Some have never even seen their children grow.”

Rani herself, like many others was beaten from time to time, especially for speaking out, she says. Hard labour was forced upon her, and she was rarely given any medical treatment.

Even the Lahore High Court judge who finally acquitted her of all charges in 2019, noted that she had been in jail for so long “solely due to the lacklustre attitude of the jail authorities”. “This court,” he said. “Feels helpless in compensating her for the miscarriage of justice suffered.”

Today Rani’s case against the State has been taken up by the Foundation for Fundamental Rights (FFR).

In a report in collaboration with Reprieve, FFR says that of all capital cases heard by the Supreme Court from 2010 to 2018, only 39 percent resulted in acquittals. The report titled, ‘The Pakistan Capital Punishment Study’, discovered that the system wrongfully convicts four in every ten of those charged in the most serious crimes, sending almost 2,000 innocent people to death row.

Lawyer Michelle Shahid, from FFR explains that this clearly indicates a need for immediate redress to Rani and other victims of miscarriage of justice.

In such cases, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) obliges states to incorporate a compensatory mechanism in their domestic law.

Article 14 (6) states that when the emergence of new facts in a case reveal that a miscarriage of justice has occurred, and a conviction is overturned, “the person who has suffered punishment as a result of such conviction shall be compensated according to law, unless it is proved that the non-disclosure of the unknown fact in time is wholly or partly attributable to him.”

In her writ petition, Rani Bibi states that almost every step of the way she faced negligence and illegalities on part of the state machinery. Wrongful conviction aside, there have been other human rights violations too.

Today she is asking the Lahore High Court to declare this – that her basic rights have been violated, and that it should direct the government to provide her with a redressal.

HER LIFE TODAY

Although Rani Bibi is now married again and is expecting her first child, she is wary and apprehensive of almost everything. The pandemic has caused great economic loss to her and her family, and a stable life seems uncertain.

But her time spent inside has given her too much anguish to bear.

Everyday trivialities stress her out, she says, and it is too much to ask her to become accustomed to life outside prison.

“Even the fact that I am expecting a baby does not cheer me up,” she says. “I feel locked in, and worried about what I may not be able to provide for him or her. I do not believe I will ever recover from my years in prison; I don’t think I can ever be normal again,” she adds. “But one thing I know – I don’t want anyone else to suffer the same fate as I have.”

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