I don’t know how much I have mentioned it here on the blog, but I assume many of my readers know that we were the victims of a burglary last July 2012. (Katie discussed in numerous times on her blog, here, here, and here.) You may remember that it took a full year to resolve the case (and as of this writing, I don’t even know the outcome, I just know our part was done and that’s all that mattered to us). It is an understatement to say that the Tanzanian justice system is dysfunctional. We’ve heard stories of people languishing in jail for years waiting to simply be formally charged. There are stories of criminals paying bribes to the police to be released or have charges dropped.* And the delays in trials are notorious. We had to appear in court 11 or 12 times before our testimony was taken. “Sorry, no advocate / judge / interpreter / etc today. Come back in two weeks.” And if you think WE had it bad or we were the exception, the trial for last year's murder of the Mwanza Police Commissioner has been delayed 29 TIMES.
All of this to say, there is little faith that the justice system will actually deliver justice. So people simply take justice into their own hands. And that’s what I saw happen on the street the other day.
When we arrived in Tanzania, we were warned that there are instances of mob mentality and vigilante actions when a crime or accident is witnessed. We were told that if we ever accidentally hit a pedestrian (God forbid), we should ignore our instincts and leave the scene immediately, because a crowd will form immediately and it can quickly get out of hand, regardless of who is ultimately to blame. We were told to drive straight to the nearest police station to report what has happened. And I’ve been told that you should NEVER yell out “THIEF!!” even if you were robbed or pick-pocketed, because the reaction to theft is swift and can be violent.
On the street the other day, my friend Joanne and I witnessed what we assume was a thief getting caught in the act. It was about 9:30am, in the middle of downtown, broad daylight, one block from a police substation. It was swift and it was indeed violent. I’ll skip the details, but the thief was surrounded and violently beaten by pretty much anyone who could get a swing in. The thief was crying out for help, trying to get away, but was repeatedly pulled back into the crowd. I felt like I SHOULD have done something, but I knew I couldn’t do anything to help with limited language and my outsider status. Luckily, there WERE a few people that were trying to calm the situation. As quickly as it started, it ended. I did not actually see what happened to the thief, but the crowd suddenly dispersed and everything went back to business as usual, though there was an increased “buzz” in the area.**
What I saw was rough, but it could have been much, much worse. Later in the day, I was telling my boss what I saw, and all I said was “Today I saw a thief get caught in town…” and she interrupted by asking “Did they kill him?” That was her first assumption, and that says a lot right there. It was a reminder of why it is important to have functional institutions in place. Where things fall apart, people will find a way to fill the void and it will not always be with a better system. Just because a solution is popular doesn’t make it morally correct.
A moral and compassionate society should not want this type of justice. We’re talking about a very violent response in the absence of a functional rule of law. In reflecting on this incident, I see many ways that this sad state of affairs is a failure on numerous fronts:
From a Christian perspective, I see the entire justice system to be broken. Christians are called to have compassion for prisoners. “Remember those who are prisoners, just as if you were imprisoned with them, and those who endure hardships, just as if you were in their place.” (Hebrews 13:3). The central story of the Christian faith revolves around an innocent man’s betrayal, torture, and condemnation to a violent death at the hands of a mob. Violently beating someone- a person who may or may not have even been guilty- to the point of serious injury or death is neither a proper nor a compassionate response to injustice.
As a social worker, my Code of Ethics stresses the inherent dignity and worth of a person, which is applicable even a criminal who has done a heinous act. Punishing an offender for a criminal act is the right of any society, and “if you do the crime, you should do the time.” People should not be absolved for crimes they did indeed commit. But that doesn’t mean that the perpetrators are not human, and as such, they should be treated with basic human dignity, and the punishment should fit the crime. Stealing a wallet should not result in a death sentence.
And as someone who supports the tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the entire system- from the formal legal system to the mobs on the street- violates many of the rights enshrined in the Declaration. Holding people indefinitely without formal charges, inordinate delays in trials, the meting out of street justice- all of these violate the following Articles of the UDHR:
- Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
- Article 6: Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
- Article 10: Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.
- Article 11: Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defense.
As I said earlier, I have been robbed, and I have seen the smart-ass smirk on the thief’s face when he was brought in for questioning. I was pissed, and I myself wanted to smack him in the face. I understand how someone may read my story above and think “Serves the thief right. He knew what he was doing. He deserved it.”
But as I stated earlier, a moral and compassionate society should not want this type of justice. And I’m sorry that Tanzania is suffering through this, both the dysfunctional system AND the reality that led the man who probably DID know EXACTLY what would happen to him to be so desperate that he took the chance he did and suffered for it. I’m not absolving the thief of his actions, per se, but most certainly the ultimate culprit here in the pervasive poverty of the country.
So there you go. I know my own country’s justice system is far from perfect, and I know that I am just a guest here. It is up to the locals to address this issue and fix these problems. But I do have hope that they WILL fix the system. My Tanzanian friends are ashamed of the violent reactions of the streets. People KNOW the system is broken. So here’s hoping that the hard work to solve these problems is done sooner than later. The Tanzanian people- both victims and perpetrators- deserve better.
* The officer we worked with was excellent and was truly concerned about getting justice. So certainly not every police officer or court official is corrupt or lax.
** Witnessing something like this incident is NOT an everyday occurrence and I have no increased fears for my personal safety or anything like that. Tanzanians are very happy and peaceful people. But obviously there’s a bit more frustration churning below the surface than what is immediately apparent, and when the opportunity comes to let it out, the results can be unfortunate.