Human Rights

Why tinkering with justice should alarm us all

BBC NEWS | UK | Juries learn sex offenders’ past

An election is coming up. By all accounts it will be on May 5 2005. So we now face the cyclical clamour of the Tories and nearly-new Labour trying to prove that they are tougher on crime and kinder on health. Usually this comes down to promises for building more prisons, giving more money to the police, short, sharp shocks, and other repackagings of the same old solutions.

But this time one-careful-owner Labour has surpassed itself. Juries in trials for theft and for child sex abuse will soon be told of the offender’s previous convictions.

Mm. Interesting choice, that. Theft and Child Sex Abuse. Why not Car-jacking and Internet Scamming? There’s a strong whiff of which crimes the public is most cross about in this policy decision. More government by polling, but we will let it pass.

We will let it pass, because the core of my complaint against this particular popularity stunt is not that it is a typical second-hand Labour random act of policy, but that it is tinkering with the core of justice itself.

Figure it any way you like. If you’ve been fingered before, the police will already have you marked as a potential suspect. Fine. This is necessary for proper investigation. ‘Form’ as the coppers say. But when juries are told as well, your past convictions are, as it were, fed into the system twice.

If there is genuinely reasonable doubt about the evidence presented in a trial, the accused should go free. This is fundamental to justice. Can the quality of the evidence be improved by providing details of previous convictions? Surely not. But the jury’s mind might be swayed. Suddenly we are looking at a system where other considerations are influencing the jury’s mind about a question of fact.

And suddenly we are staring at the face of a completely different kind of justice.

It’s democracy, but is it freedom?

BBC NEWS | World | South Asia | Early results show Karzai victory

It looks fairly certain that Mohammed Karzai will win the first elections in Afghanistan since – well, since for ever. In the wake of the Iraq debacle it’s easy to forget how much has changed in Afghanistan. Remarkably, the widely trailered Taleban violence never really materialised. By Sunday night Karzai had secured 4,219,569 votes – more than the 50% he needs for a straight win, and of course therefore a much better mandate than those enjoyed by Messrs Blair and Bush.

George W, of course, famously told the world that ‘they hate us because we love freedom’. Well done, George. You have a talent for stating the blindingly obvious and still getting it completely wrong. But is freedom what Afghanistan really got? The process of democratic election seems to have worked, which bodes well for Iraq. But looking more closely, it was the closest ally of the USA who won. And, what’s more, there were widespread protests that he got the lion’s share of coverage in the media. In addition, of course, to the advantage that the incumbent always has in a many-horse race.

All this sounds eerily close to the situation in the ’70s and ’80s in South America. Nicaragua and El Salvador should not be forgotten. When governments friendly to Western interests were fairly elected, all was well. When the result seemed to be at risk, US advisers to their allies magically appeared. When the result actually went the wrong way, things turned nasty.

The test for the nascent democracies which the coalition is trying to plant in the Islamic world will come when local populations attempt to elect governments hostile to US interests.

What price, then, freedom?

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