While there are certainly problems with the Australian criminal justice system, we are lucky enough to live in a society where punishments are not designed to inflict cruelty, degradation and humiliation.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for some countries, where degrading punishments are part and parcel of sentencing offenders.
Last week, the world was horrified by news that two Indian females had been sentenced to be gang raped after their brother eloped with a married woman of a higher class.
Indian Women Sentenced to be Gang Raped
23-year-old Meenakshi Kumari and her 15-year-old sister are part of a hierarchical society in which women are considered second-class citizens.
The sisters and their family are members of the Dalit caste – commonly referred to as ‘untouchables.’ The group represents the very bottom rung of the Hindu caste system, and are considered to be outcasts who face heavy penalties if they step out of line.
After the girls’ brother eloped with a married woman from a higher class, the village elders – all upper-caste males – ordered that the sisters walk naked through the streets with their faces blackened before being subjected to gang rape.
Sexual assault is a crime in India, but the ruling came from an unelected village council which operates outside the country’s legal system. These councils are known to order horrific punishments to Dalit caste members who are alleged to have dishonoured the class system.
The sisters have reportedly petitioned the Supreme Court for an order for the police to protect them. They have since sought refuge in a secret location in Delhi, amidst fears that they could face further retribution in the lead up to their punishment.
Sadly, the sisters’ plight is not uncommon, and many other countries impose harsh and degrading penalties for acts which we in Australia would not consider to be crimes.
Saudi Arabia is another country in which human rights abuses frequentlly occur in the context of court-ordered punishments.
The country follows Shari’ah law, which is an Islamic legal system that imposes various forms of corporal and capital punishment for certain offences. In one 2009 case, the leader of a gang that was responsible for robbing jewellery stores was ordered to be beheaded, and his body displayed in public for three days. The remaining gang members received heavy prison sentences ranging between seven and 15 years, as well as being subjected to whippings.
And in 2002, a Nigerian court sentenced a 30-year-old woman to death by stoning for having sex and conceiving a child outside of marriage. Thankfully, Amina Lawal successfully appealed the conviction and was later freed, but other women have not been so lucky.
Just five years later, in nearby Somalia, a 13-year-old girl was stoned to death before a crowd of 1,000 people at a football stadium. The young girl went to police after being raped by three men – but instead of prosecuting the offenders, the authorities charged her with adultery.
These horrific sentences occur regularly around the world, despite various international instruments purporting to outlaw torture as a form of punishment.
For instance, Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that:
‘No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.’
The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment also contains various provisions outlawing torture.
Article 1 of that Convention defines torture as:
‘…any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.’
Member States are required to ‘take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.’
Incredibly, these international covenants have been ratified and signed by some of the most prolific human rights abusers.
Nigeria, for instance, signed the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1988 and ratified it in 2001.
India, too, has signed the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, but not yet ratified it. Interestingly, India has both signed and ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women – yet women continue to face entrenched discrimination in many areas of life.