Crime and punishment from Tehran to New York

Can there be a criminal justice system that shifts the focus from offender to victim?

 |  Feminism Beyond Boundaries  |  5-minute read |   05-01-2016
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When I lived in Iran, there was a small item in a paper that caught my eye. An 18-year-old boy, about to be hanged for murder, got a last minute reprieve, after the victim's family heard him play the flute.

Paymand, was convicted of killing a drug dealer at the age of 16. He already had the noose around his neck, when he was asked his last wish. He asked to play the ney, a Middle Eastern flute. His playing so moved the family of the victim that they asked for his execution to be halted.

A few years later in New York, I read about Rais Bhuyian, a Bangladeshi-born naturalised US citizen, who was fighting to get the man who had blinded him and killed two others, off the death row. In the days following September 11, 2001, Mark Stroman attacked three people, killing two of them. He was targeting anyone he considered an "Arab", calling it revenge for 9/11.

"What Mark Stroman did was a hate crime, and hate crimes come from ignorance," said Bhuiyan. "His execution will not eradicate hate crimes from this world, we will just simply lose another human life."

Bhuyiyan's efforts made Stroman reassess his basic values. "At that time here in America everybody was saying 'let's get them' - we didn't know who to get, we were just stereotyping. I stereotyped all Muslims as terrorists and that was wrong. I had some poor upbringing and I grabbed a hold of some ideas, which was ignorance, you know, and hate is pure ignorance. I no longer want to be like hate, I want to be like me," he said.

In India, last month I read that Jyoti Singh Pandey's parents were running from pillar to post to get an amendment to the Juvenile Justice Bill, reducing the age of criminal liability so that the 17-year-old boy, who was part of the gang of six that raped and murdered their daughter, would not be let free.

Thanks to their leadership, public pressure mounted and the Bill passed. Accused no 6 had been freed after three years of completing his sentence - imprisonment in an Observation Home, weeks before the Bill passed. They felt that they got only partial justice for their daughter but future victims would get justice as a result of their campaign.

Also read: Our Parliament has lost its way with Juvenile Justice Bill

I wonder if life for the convicted boy will be better on the streets than in the Observation Home?

I wonder if the thousands of questions Jyoti's parents have will ever be answered?

I wonder if the fear of the new JJ Act will stop other boys from joining gangs or participating in rape and other masculinity rituals?

Had Jyoti's parents met and talked to accused no 6, would they have found some answers? Would accused no 6 have been able to start life with a sense of greater accountability and responsibility?

Can there be a criminal justice system that shifts the focus from offender to victim and from punishment to whatever makes things right?

Linda White, the mother of a daughter, raped and murdered by a 15-year-old in Texas, USA, campaigns relentlessly for criminal justice policymaking that can be both pro-defendant and pro-victim.

White decided to meet her daughter's rapist and murderer in prison to hear the full story rather than imagining what the offender did or thought. In her meeting with Brown, she learned how he and his friend had tricked her daughter, Cathy, into giving them a ride; ordered her down a road "leading to nothing," raped her at gunpoint, shot her in the leg to "slow her down" so they could escape, only to decide - after discussing it in front of her - to eliminate the witness to their crimes altogether.

Through tears, Brown explains how Cathy urged them to leave with all her belongings and promised not to report them. "And then with the gun pointed towards her, she said, 'I forgive you, and God will, too.' And then she put her head down."

Also read: America is no longer safe

Brown makes no excuses during the encounter. Not about his catastrophic upbringing. Not about being too high to know what they were doing that day. Not to stress that it was his friend who pulled the trigger.

Linda White shows Brown photos of his victim. She conveys to Brown that his resolve to live a better life is the only atonement he can make and all that she asks of him.

25 years later, when Brown is out of prison and gainfully employed they meet at a café.

He makes clear he's here to show White what he's made of himself outside of prison: continuously employed, paying his bills, deeply committed to his church. He wants to serve as an example to young people of the perils of drugs and street life and of the promise of redemption. "It's the best I can give back to everybody," he says, "so I welcome it."

"Every day that I'm out here," he continues, "that was one more day I was telling you I was sorry for what I had done. I would show you through my actions and my proof and what I do out here that shows you I wasn't that kind of person of what I was back then. I was so worried about hurting you."

"Yeah. At the end I was thinkin' about y'all. Wasn't thinkin' about me no more. I was thinkin' about y'all. Cause y'all believed in me. Y'all gave me strength," Brown said.

Writer

Ruchira Gupta Ruchira Gupta @ruchiragupta

>Feminist campaigner, professor at New York University, and founder of Indian anti-sex trafficking organisation, ApneAap Women Worldwide.

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