Last night, the chief minister of Punjab formally announced in a press conference that the key suspect in the rape and murder of six-year-old Zainab Amin had been arrested.
But even before the announcement was made, residents of Kasur had surrounded Zainab’s suspected rapist/murderer's house.
Given past incidents of mob violence, there's a danger that mob mentality might once again govern the handling of this case, either directly (lynching, defamation) or indirectly through coercing the state to hand in a quick verdict to soothe public anger.
Passionate public reactions, fueled by intense media coverage, can seep into the consciousness of trial participants, including the police, lawyers and the judges, effecting the state’s ability to be an impartial adjudicator.
During this time, law enforcers face intense pressure to handle the situation urgently, and in the mistaken belief that they have a duty to come to a quick result at any cost, often err on the side of premature criminal justice action.
For instance, the police can employ aggressive methods, including coercive interrogation tactics, to get answers that the public demands. Whereas, empirical evidence has unequivocally shown that coercive interrogation tactics do not lead to honest confessions.
We may proclaim that all are innocent until proven guilty, but we, through our mob mentality, tilt the state towards deciding the guilt, long before trial.
Whereas, the proper basis for determining innocence or guilt includes ensuring the accused’s attendance in court, protecting the judicial process from outside interference, weighing evidence on the basis of facts and law, and finally by protecting the sanctity of an investigation.
When nations transition from oppressive and lawless regimes to democratic ones, they face innumerable challenges. If the values of a democratic government are to take root, the state must transform the culture in which it operates.
The most important opportunity for promoting the transformation of the culture towards due process of law is in the state’s response to the public’s quest for mob justice.
The state’s response to Zainab’s murder has the potential to be a watershed moment, and may inculcate the values of due process and accountability before the society at large, as this case has a far greater hold on public imagination than most other events that have transpired in the nation’s history.
There are many reasons for the state to withstand public pressure and instead hold potentially elongated, yet fair and meticulous proceedings and trial.
First, diligently following the process of law in criminal proceedings safeguards an accused’s due process rights.
Second, it discourages perjury, misconduct, tampering and judicial decisions based on prejudice, secret bias or partiality.
Third, the history of proper and transparent high-profile trials furthers the notion that trials have a sacred value, in that they rationally soothe human reactions of outrage to injustice, unlike all other forms of retribution.
Justice for Zainab will not be found in a one-off speedy trial with mob mentality looming over every minor decision made by the state.
Rather, justice for Zainab can only be effectuated in the gradual independent reform of our criminal justice system.
How this case is investigated can set the benchmark for all future criminal proceedings. This can range from the incorporation of scientific investigative methods such as fingerprints and DNA (which has been done), to the state combating infiltration of mob mentality by not disclosing the identity of law-enforcers and adjudicators.
Abraham Lincoln once rightly noted that mob justice, while perhaps accomplishing noble ends, erodes respect for the law, which is the true guarantor of justice.
Ascertaining guilt through the justice system is a lengthy process. Cases should not be handled quickly, but handled correctly.
The state must embrace this train of thought and withstand mob mentality.
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