I am delighted at the Cape High Court’s decision to acquit Shrien Dewani of the murder of his wife, Anni. Not because I think he is innocent – I have no view on that question as I have not followed the trial closely enough. Nor because I wish further harm on Anni’s family, the Hindochas. After their devastating loss, even though it’s four years ago, they’re still searching for closure. Nor do I think that the SAPS and their colleagues in the NPA have covered themselves in glory – far from it.
No, I am delighted at the verdict because it shows that in South Africa, at least, you can get a fair trial, based on the evidence.
Judge Jeanette Traverso, famed in Cape legal circles as a scourge of the ill-prepared, reviewed the evidence presented by the State again Dewani, assessed it as being hardly worth the paper it was written on, and threw the case out. How very inconvenient for all concerned! Wouldn’t it have been a lot more helpful if she had found Dewani guilty (eventually) and sentenced him to life in jail? We would then have been able to trumpet to the rest of the world that no-one gets away with murder in South Africa, least of all wealthy foreign visitors.
Instead, we can hold our heads very high and say that this is one country where you will be brought to trial and judged on the evidence. If that evidence is against you, you will go to prison like Oscar Pistorius. If the evidence doesn’t exist, you will go free like Shrien Dewani.
That’s not only a comforting thought, but also a mark of a civilised nation and in some important respects, it sets us above the United States.
As many observers would know, the US is a country that prides itself on being a democracy and on having a impartial legal system.
I won’t comment on the first part of that statement, but America’s legal system has fallen disgracefully short in recent years.
Most notable in recent weeks has been the failure of not one but two Grand Juries to bring police officers to court following deaths of black Americans. One was a child, the other had been apparently selling illegal cigarettes. The first was shot dead, the second killed in a chokehold.
The Grand Jury system is a relic from medieval times in England, whereby the local authorities might summon a panel of local worthies and ask for news or an opinion, as in “Is there something to this case – should it go to court?” The answer might have been, “No, it’s rubbish – this is gossip, based on a personal feud.” Or it might have been, “Yes, there appears to be a case to answer – whatever happened needs court scrutiny.” A Grand Jury’s purpose is not to find guilt or innocence – it is simply to look at the available facts and confirm that a full court case should be the next step.
In both the case of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager killed in Ferguson, Missouri, and of Eric Garner, the black asthmatic killed in New York, there is clearly a matter to be heard, doubly so in America’s racially charged atmosphere. As with Dewani, I’m not pronouncing on the guilt of the officers involved, but all involved needed the clarity of open court.
But these are not the worst cases of the failure of America’s justice system.
Earlier this week, six “low level” detainees were transferred from the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison to Uruguay, which has given them refugee status. These are men who have been held without trial for 12 years.
Yes, you read that right. Held without trial for 12 years. And there are quite a few more in Guantanamo who will probably be held without trial for the rest of their lives. At least 69 prisoners are deemed “too dangerous to release”.
We know the roots of this reach down into the rubble of the World Trade Centre and understand the anger of ordinary Americans at that vicious attack. But then, surely, when you catch the perpetrators or their henchmen, you are duty bound to put them on very public trial. If you do not and just detain them indefinitely, you have become your enemy. You have allowed your enemy not only to dictate the battleground, but the morality you’ll use when you arrive there.
This is behaviour straight out of the pages of history: from Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China or Hitler’s Germany. We don’t like you, you look suspicious, we think you’re guilty of…something. So off to the Gulag or the Camps – no trial necessary.
When it was first announced that Shrien Dewani would be charged with murder and tried in South Africa, many people around the world were heard to wonder if he would receive a fair trial. Well, he got a fair trial and then some.
That’s more than can be said for the police officers involved in the Brown and Garner killings or the prisoners of Guantanamo.