Presumption of innocence, a fundamental principle of any modern justice system, is formalized in Article II of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
However, in practice, the application of this principle can be inconsistent, or even severely lacking in some cases. Some regimes may have a political interest in not affording fair trials to certain suspects, although even in countries which are not normally known for disregarding international law, the media may effectively assign guilt before any trial takes place. Aside from concerns around political interference with trials, it is also important to consider the humiliating and demeaning measures used in certain arrests, which may also stem from political motivations or prejudice.
Corruption and the court of public opinion
For any individual accused of a crime, trial by media can have a very serious impact on their life, even if they are ultimately found innocent in a court of law. This is especially true in the cases of those charged with sex offenses or murder, where the long-term damage can be irreparable.
Jobs may be lost, families may be torn apart, and even physical harm may result from the media tainting public opinion. A fair trial by jury may be almost impossible after extensive press coverage, particularly if reports have a significant degree of bias.
Governments, especially in the case of authoritarian regimes, can have an interest in interfering with trials and subverting due process. This can be for the purposes of covering up scandals and corruption, or even to punish political dissent.
Around the world, there have been many instances of opposition political activists being detained in dubious circumstances, often charged with various forms of misconduct unrelated to their political activity. This can be a convenient tool for governments to have their opponents discredited.
In some extreme cases, as in North Korea, entire families will be imprisoned or sent to labor camps if one family member is considered in any way a threat to the regime. Under such a paranoid and totalitarian system, it would be impossible to envisage a fair trial for anyone suspected of undermining the government. Therefore, the mere suspicion of dissent would be enough for individuals and their families to be arbitrarily subjected to prolonged hardship and persecution.
However, detaining suspects without a fair trial is not only the preserve of the world’s most authoritarian governments. As part of the War on Terror, the United States government has used Guantanamo Bay detention camp for the incarceration of terror suspects held indefinitely without trial. This practice has been met with much scrutiny, as it breaches national and international law concerning due process.
There are numerous reports of abuses committed against inmates at Guantanamo Bay, including various methods of torture. The detention camp is condemned by Amnesty International as violating human rights.
One particularly serious consequence of presumption of guilt is the prospect of angry mobs taking it upon themselves to punish alleged transgressors. An example of this would be the notorious practice of lynching that was prevalent in the United States from the Reconstruction Era through to the mid-20th century.
Typically, the victims of these extrajudicial killings were African-American men, suspected of murder or rape, often as a result of unsubstantiated accusations. Many were forcibly removed from the custody of law enforcement by mobs of sometimes hundreds, or even thousands of people, for a summary execution.
The persisting practice of stoning in certain parts of the world is another example of what can happen when the presumption of innocence is disregarded. As of 2019, this action is still used as a method of capital punishment in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, Brunei, Iran, and parts of Nigeria.
However, stoning is also extensively practiced extrajudicially, both by mobs and by militant religious fundamentalist groups. In these cases, the victims are usually LGBTQ+ people, women accused of adultery, as well as those accused of blasphemy.
Preventing future abuse
There are ways in which the principle of presumed innocence can be more widely promoted. Increased international condemnation of governments that disregard due process would be a good place to start. Global media can help with mounting pressure for change in countries where this principle is continually violated.
In terms of a widespread call for greater awareness, consumers also have the option to boycott certain regimes that are known to be the worst culprits in terms of human rights abuses.
It is also important to hold people accountable for irresponsible actions, such as proclaiming someone’s guilt and directing intimidation or mob violence towards a suspect who has yet to have a fair trial. As for law enforcement and the judicial system itself, it is important to have a mechanism for impartial reviews.
Why presumption of innocence is Important to SFL
At Students For Liberty, we believe that it is crucial to any justice system in a free society that each individual’s right to a fair trial is respected. No person should be arbitrarily deprived of their freedom without first being convicted in a court of law.