India’s justice system can’t compensate long-term prisoners, court rules

While all rights enshrined in the Indian constitution are mandatory, there is no fund to give fair trail compensation

An Indian state has been asked to pay a Nepali man £5,000 in compensation after he spent four decades in jail before being granted “trial by indigence”.

Ranjit Prasad Sharma was arrested by Shivapur in Gujarat on 15 January 1990 and charged with a string of rape and kidnapping offences. He was released on bail in 2012, only to be returned to prison in 2017.

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A Nepali high court judgment last month found that Shivapur had violated Sharma’s right to a fair trial. The court ordered that Sharma receive 100,000 rupees (£1,000) as compensation. In addition, he was ordered to be compensated with an additional 200,000 rupees per year of his continuous imprisonment.

India’s constitution has recognised the right to a fair trial since its first constituent assembly approved a statute on criminal procedure in 1920. However, there is no institutionalised mechanism for compensation, explains Sukhdev Krishna Dixit, director of the Dalhousie Law School.

In addition, “there is no fund either to pay fair trial and compensation or to use as a fund to deal with injustices,” he says.

Sharma was locked up in various jails in Gujarat after being arrested. “We had to keep our eyes closed,” he says. The length of Sharma’s incarceration will determine the compensation amount he receives, according to Dixit. “The same thing happened to a British Indian detained on the streets of Bombay. He was accused of terrorism and arrested for terror. He was also spent 11 years in jail. The court gave him only half of the compensation amount as he spent the time in that prison.”

There are more than 5,000 inmates languishing in jails in Gujarat alone, many of whom have been imprisoned for decades without being tried, warns Anjali Mahto, a migrant worker and migration expert at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

She believes that in a country as large as India, with millions of people with migratory histories, Sharmas are not unusual, and also believe that some of these prisoners are wrongly accused.

Long-term deprivation in detention

“There is an alarming number of cases, which we have detected, in which migrants who are not convicted of the crime they have been charged with are being detained for such periods of time, that in some cases they will never get a fair trial, or at the very least be forced to be acquitted.”

According to Dixit, Sharma’s case is not unique. The prolonged deprivation of liberty that accompanies detention can profoundly affect mental and physical health, both of prisoners and detainees.

“We are seeing more young people, in particular, who are severely mentally disturbed, who have no access to adequate treatment. They are living in an environment they do not understand, where they have grown up with violence, where they have no idea how to deal with issues of trust and emotion. It is really in their immediate community that they have the support they need to overcome those issues. They cannot connect with that community once they are in custody.”

Mahto and the other members of the Social & Social Justice and Development group are working to provide rehabilitation and financial assistance to prisoners in Maharashtra. They are also campaigning for changes to the nation’s rape law, which they say can sometimes result in rapists spending a little more than a year in prison – still a long time for a victim.

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