The right to a fair trial, the presumption of innocence and the protection of human rights are some of the fundamental requirements of an evolved society that understands the significance of the search for truth, the possibility of redemption and the unconditional value of human life.
On the occasion of la Livella Magazine‘s latest symposium, held in Treviso on the 19th of November 2022, the participants had the opportunity to examine the different aspects of the concept of imprisonment from several points of view: historical, philosophical, artistic and within contemporary society. Concerning the latter, the discussion was particularly lively due to some recent legislative changes in Italy in relation to the lifelong sentence without a right to parole. Furthermore, on a broader, more international scale, the subject matter regarding the prisoners’ reassurances granted on behalf of western Countries and the re-educative purpose of the punishment were also dealt with.
Prisons made their first appearance in Europe and North America at the end of the 19th century, replacing more widespread and brutal corporal punishments such as executions, public whipping and branding. Today, in our judicial system, prisons have acquired a re-educative purpose, with the final aim of reintegrating offenders into the ranks of civil society. However, in other systems, penitentiary institutions seem to still hold the mere function of inflicting punishments rather than rehabilitating the convict. In Iran, for example, the feeling is that prisons operate solely as a punitive institute against those who oppose the regime. The Country has recently made international headlines thanks to the case of Masha Amini, the 22-year-old Kurdish girl who died under suspicious circumstances after the Iranian moral police arrested her because she was not wearing her hijab properly. Government sources have recently released the result of the autopsy, according to which her passing was not due to any abuse by the police, but rather to a brain disease that allowed no cure. Despite those official statements, Masha’s death was followed by numerous uprisings with international echoes against the regime, which is considered to be held accountable for the actual incident.
Masha’s is just one out of the many stories of abuse perpetrated inside Iranian prisons. Among the most notorious ones, there is the dreaded Evin, in Tehran, a place where one is supposed to stop temporarily while awaiting trial but where, in fact, one might even wait for their entire life. Opponents of the regime call it “Evin University” because it is where intellectuals, teachers, artists and, more generally, all men and women who have fought for their desire for freedom are imprisoned.
The testimonies of the brutality inflicted on the inmates in the Evin prison can lead us to identify one main structural and finalistic difference that characterises the judicial system we are used to.
In fact, unfortunately, the Western system has also had to face episodes of violence inflicted by some members of the police corps against arrested people; nonetheless, it is necessary to discern the different circumstances under which this happened. There are cases where the so-called police brutality stems from an explicit request of the government concerning the treatment of detainees. And then, there are cases where there was a rather severe hiccup in the system (see e.g. the Cucchi and Uva cases in Italy), in which the guilty members of the police corps are then tried for the acts committed.
Furthermore, it is important to note that the Western system is extremely protective of the rights and human dignity of those deprived of their personal freedom.
First of all, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) identifies some of the basic principles for the protection of the rights of those who are restricted in their personal liberty and, more generally, of those who come into contact in any way with the judicial and penal system in their own country. This is the case of Article 5, which states a fundamental principle: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment“, Article 9, which states that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile“, and Article 10, which states that “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.”
These and many others are principles for the protection of the fundamental rights of people subject to criminal measures and refer universally to every person without distinction of race, colour, gender, religion or any other status.
Personally, I believe in the extreme importance of always remembering the value of the laws that protect our share of the world, without ever belittling their relevance even in those circumstances where the offender might seem guilty without any doubt and not deserving of any legal protection. The right to a fair trial, the presumption of innocence and the protection of human rights are some of the fundamental requirements of an evolved society that understands the significance of the search for truth, the possibility of redemption and the unconditional value of human life.