Not for want of trying

One of the reforms that are sorely needed in our justice system is the creation of a Public Prosecutor’s Office

Lawrence of Arabia: Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence (centre), Anthony Quinn as Auda abu Tayi (left) and Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali
Lawrence of Arabia: Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence (centre), Anthony Quinn as Auda abu Tayi (left) and Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali

Earlier this week, a magistrate lashed out at the decision to charge a former police inspector with masterminding a million-euro bank robbery on the strength of the testimony of one not-so-reliable witness: a former police constable who has since been boarded out due to mental health issues.

‘Those who are entrusted with respecting and implementing justice don’t even possess a sense of justice,’ the magistrate was reported as commenting, after the defence closed its submissions.

The magistrate, who had been hearing the case for the past six years, heard defence lawyer Joe Giglio launch broadside after broadside at the prosecution’s case against the defendant, destroying the credibility of the prosecution’s star witness, who was referred to by his service number: PC99. Giglio railed at the decision to prosecute David Gatt solely on the strength of PC99’s evidence, whom the lawyer described as being both fantastic and incredible. 

I do not intend to enter into the merits of the particular case and on whether the accused is as innocent as he says he is or as villainous as the prosecution attempted to make him out to be. 

But the incident reminded me again of the famous quote from Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’:

‘I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury’ said cunning old Fury:

‘I’ll try the whole cause, and condemn you to death’

For many years, I have been arguing that one of the reforms that are sorely needed in our justice system is the creation of a Public Prosecutor’s Office that is distinct from the Police Force. This change in the system is needed because the Police’s view of a case is not necessarily as objective as it needs to be for one to take the decision to prosecute a normal citizen. In this case, the situation was even worse because the accused was ‘one of them’, a former police inspector.

Apart from this particular case, it is well known that it is unofficial Police policy to charge people with the maximum offence possible and leave the Courts to decide whether the case merited a lower degree of charge. There were even cases where in order to shut up some unreasonable complainant and avoid being accused of dereliction of duty, the police prosecuted some citizen, fully knowing that the accused would not be found guilty by the Courts.

In my opinion, this attitude on the part of the Police is exactly the opposite: a dereliction of duty in order to avoid unfair accusations against them, carried out with the most incredible disdain of the rights of the ordinary citizen. The fact that the cost of this charade is borne by the taxpaying citizens of the country only makes it worse. 

Another sore point is the way persons who clash with the police in one way or another are later charged in Court, with the accusation that many a charge is made unjustly: either as a means of retaliation by the Police or as a cover-up of some Police misbehaviour, or worse. People who claim that they were mistreated by members of the Police force are invariably charged with having themselves attacked the Police; resulting in a situation where confusion reigns as to who is the aggressor and who is the victim. This has been happening too often for comfort.

In our system, the Police do not only have an investigative function when the law is breached but also the discretion to decide whether a person should be charged with a crime or a contravention and what the relevant charge should be. It is this second function and the way that it is exercised that is raising so many questions, with many concluding that the discretion to prosecute criminal cases should no longer be the responsibility of the police.

In England and Wales, it is the Crown Prosecution Service that is responsible for prosecuting criminal cases investigated by the police. Our system was set up under British rule many years ago at a time when it was deemed to be expedient for the public prosecutor to be as near as possible to the powers that be. Entrusting the Commissioner of Police – who was invariably a hand-picked faithful servant of the Crown and not of the people – with the prosecuting function was, therefore, a very convenient way of imposing colonial control.

It is incredibly ironic that over 50 years after attaining independence, we keep trudging along with a system devised by a colonial power for that colonial power’s own ends… 


Sykes-Picot Agreement

A recent special report on ‘The Arab World’ in ‘The Econmist’ included a historical view of the tribulations in the Middle East with reference to the unintended consequences of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

A hundred years ago, on May 19, 1916, Great Britain and France, with the assent of imperial Russia, agreed on the plans for the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. The agreement that took its name from its negotiators, Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and François Georges-Picot of France led to the division of Turkish-held Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine into various French and British administered areas. 

This secret arrangement conflicted with pledges already given by the British to the Arabs who had given their support in the war against the Turks (remember Lawrence of Arabia?) on the understanding that victory would lead to the setting up of a great Hashemite Kingdom ruled from Damascus. It also impinged on the ambitions of Italy that was originally left out without any share of the spoils. 

The Arabs, who learned of the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement when it was published – together with other secret treaties of imperial Russia – by the Soviet Russian government late in 1917, were scandalized at the way they were treated by the western allies.

The artificial drawing of national boundaries on a desk in London ignored the situation on the ground: the ethnic and religious differences between people living in the area. A hundred years later this agreement plus the further subsequent interventions of the US in the area have created the mess that gave rise to Al Qaeda and now to Daesh (ISIS).

The piece in ‘The Economist’ ends by quoting Rami Khouri of the American University of Beirut: ‘Lots of countries have strange borders. Yet for Arabs, Sykes-Picot is a symbol of a much deeper grievance against colonial tradition. It is about a whole century in which Western powers have played with us and were involved militarily’.

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