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Rosemund Handler

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The Quality of Justice: The Shrien Dewani Case

The Westminster Magistrates’ Court ruled today that Shrien Dewani, suspected of arranging the murder of his wife Anni, can be extradited to face trial in South Africa. However, his lawyers intend to appeal the decision and legal action might drag for quite some time still. In light of the new developments in the case, here is a piece I wrote a while ago:

The killers of Shrien Dewani’s young wife are currently serving their long sentences, but they must be as confused as I am about British notions of justice and humanity. These men, better than anybody else, know the role Dewani (allegedly) played in his wife’s murder, yet the South African courts are still on tenterhooks and the outcome remains far from certain. Everybody, with the possible exception of the British courts, believes it’s high time the accused had his day in our courts, to explain to South Africans and the world his side of the story, if he has one, and to provide evidence that he didn’t use a foreign country as his killing field.

In spite of the seriousness of the crimes of which Dewani stands accused, the British have behaved with disturbing delicacy in the matter of when and where their citizen should stand trial. British courts have repeatedly heard – and voiced – the concern that their citizen will be brutalised in our prisons, and Dewani has been given a lot of time and every opportunity to recover from his ‘severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder’.

While this humanity may be laudable, it must be said that disorders such as these are perfect hiding places for what must loom large in Dewani’s so-called disordered mind: the terror of being forced to stand trial and possibly serve his sentence in the very city where murder-for-sale appears chillingly available to those who seek it.

Are the British really more humane than we are, than other nations? If so, what about the murder victim, the honeymoon wife who suffered a terrifying ordeal at the hands of strangers before they killed her? What about the suffering of her family, who heard the evidence given in the South African courts and yet continue daily to confront their unresolved loss? It seems to me that what is on trial here is not Dewani’s guilt or innocence, but the quality of British justice.

Britain’s most senior police officer has been outspoken on the subject: British justice, he says, is a joke. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens recently claimed that ‘criminals were effectively above the law, while judges, defence lawyers and court administrators rode roughshod over the rights of terrified victims and intimidated witnesses’. The entire system ‘treated those aiming to put criminals behind bars with contempt.’ He described the criminal trial as ‘an uneven game of tactics’; that ‘abusive muggers are treated like petty shoplifters.’

Sir John Stevens goes further: ‘The public are more than disenchanted with criminal justice in this country, they are fed up with it. The process actually encourages criminals in the belief that crime is merely a game of no consequence to society, local communities or their victims, so that they are not held to account. So we see robbers with strings of previous convictions strutting across the estates of inner London, having won their most recent game in court, arrogant, untouchable, fearless and ready for anything. ‘He claims that the levels of violence are unprecedented, and that witnesses are more frightened of testifying than of becoming a victim. ‘You sometimes wonder who is on trial, the defendant or the victim.’

Home Office minister Keith Bradley claims that the Government recognises there is a need for reform of the criminal justice system, and they are addressing some of the issues raised by Britain’s top police officer. Norman Brennan, of the Victims of Crime Trust, says he welcomes this, but as chief executive of the Victims of Crime Trust and 24 years as a front-line police officer, he has never seen the criminal justice system ‘in such disarray’.

Makes one think, doesn’t it? If Shrien Dewani’s trial takes place in Britain, his family can afford to employ the best legal minds in the country in his defence. And the psychiatrists describing Dewani’s struggle with suicidal depression wouldn’t be there if they weren’t well paid.

Given the current state of the British criminal justice system – and the much-publicised brutality of South African prisons – is it any wonder that Dewani would play any card, including his mental fitness, to be tried in Britain rather in South Africa? He believes, and Britain’s top cop seems to agree, that whichever way it goes, he will get a far cushier deal in his own country.


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