Afew days back while reading the book “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari, I stumbled upon an information which seems harmless in plain sight but in fact is quite gargantuan in the consequence it ensues. One of the many evolutionary dramatics which helped us situate on the top of the food chain is the ability to think about things that do not exist, i.e. the power of imagination. This may seem like a gift from the heavens above until this very blessing started feeding the mouth of gossip magazines and paved the way for defamation cases. The consequences does not stop there, our psychological need for simulation has gone so far that people now make a living out of unearthing conspiracy theories about real life events. But, the going gets tough when the point of imagination takes a turn into the abyss and a person's reputation and livelihood is in line.
While it is safe to sympathise with the fact the there are monsters living in the flesh suit of humans who are worthy of the most severe punishment, there is also some value in the statement that some people like making monsters out of mere humans. Although that might not be the case in every situation but people do act out of vengeance and jealousy and often for political reasons and in such scenarios filing false suits is the norm.
However, the problem starts to rot when laymen blur the lines between an accused and a convict: media trials being the worst case scenario as the accused gets a life sentence of doubt, defame and disgust by default. In any case for someone's stature to get smirched it is not necessary for him to be behind the bars, a dash of accusation in the realm of public arena and our age old gift of imagination is all the more sufficient.
The presumption of innocence is one of the cornerstone principles of law, and we as law students had an immeasurable pressure weighing on our shoulders when it came to opining on different case scenarios, as it was not only necessary to analyse the facts in question but it was even more important to do so while keeping in mind that the person charged or about to be charged has not been convicted by a court of law and we were barred from presenting him as a convict. Nevertheless, such a stringent rule of thumb does not apply to the public at large and there is no dire resulting consequence if anyone thinks that an accused is guilty.
But when this thought which prima facie seems innocuous is being sow with thread of qualm by a population of the size of a mediocre country, the so called presumption of innocence turns into a myth. But the question remains if this legal presumption is meant to have a home in the minds of the laymen. The answer is yes, as it is not only a legal presumption but a human right of every Homo sapiens under the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 11 of UDHR states that, “everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all guarantees necessary for his defence.” Article 35 of our Constitution similarly provides that every accused of a criminal offence has the right to a speedy and public trial by an independent and impartial Court or tribunal established by law. Moreover, no person accused of any offence can be compelled to be a witness against himself. Section 101 of the Evidence Act 1872 rather requires the complainant, who brings criminal allegation against an individual, to prove the existence of facts concerning the charge/allegation.
On 10th of December in 1948 when forty eight member states became signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, René Cassie compared it to the portico of a Greek Temple, with foundation, steps, four columns and a pediment. Nevertheless, the value enshrined in this principle should go beyond the judicial system. For instance, there should be journalistic codes of moral and ethics in our country which without conflicting with the right to free speech should also uphold the sanctity of presumption of innocence. It should also be understood that an apology in the aftermath of someone's reputation being tarnished does not restore the person's lost dignity.
The writer is a Masters Student, Department of Criminology, University of Dhaka.