Vajai Kumari was five months pregnant when she was accused of murdering a neighbor in 1994. She insists she is innocent and was set-up.
“I had some ancestral property in my name and my in-laws had their greedy eyes on that. So they schemed against me and implicated me in this case. Nobody came forward to help me and I couldn’t do anything.”
She was convicted of murder but she appealed the decision in a higher court.
That court granted her bail after the birth of her son. But she couldn’t afford to pay the almost 200 US dollars and her appeal court case never happened.
It was not till her son, Kanhaiya, was 19 and working that he earned the money to bail her out.
“ I missed her a lot and cried, I wanted my mother with me so I started working and when I made enough money I went to the court again.”
This time though, the court freed her without asking for bail money. She had spent nearly 20 years in jail.
Thirty five year old Mohammad Aamir was just 18 when he was arrested in Delhi on terror charges.
All his appeals for bail were denied and he spent 14 years in jail waiting for a judge to find him guilty or innocence.
In the end his was clear of all charges. But he says there was little to celebrate.
“I had gone out to buy medicine for my mother when I was picked up. Before I left home my mother said lets have dinner first but I said lets have it when I come back. I didn’t know that I would never be able to eat with my mother again. My father died of shock, and my mother fought relentlessly for justice. But years went by and she started losing hope, it was her growing despair that caused her brain hemorrhage. Now she is bed-ridden.”
More than 70 percent of people in jail in India are waiting for their trial to begin, or are waiting for the verdict.
In some cases they have been waiting for decades.
Usha Ramanathan is a professor at the New Delhi-based- Indian Law Institute.
“Sixty percent of the arrests that are made are unnecessary and this is an official figure not something that I’m pulling out of my hat. And it’s two types of people that get arrested mostly, one is the poor and marginal people that are around and the other one is political.”
Now the Supreme Court has ordered the release of all prisoners who have served half of the prison term they would have had to serve had they been convicted.
The court has ordered officials to visit jails and identify such cases and report back within two months.
Nearly 100,000 prisoners are likely to walk free. Many prisoners and their relatives have welcomed the move.
But Usha Ramanathan of the Indian Law Institute says it’s only happening because the jails are getting overcrowded.
“If we pause for a minute and think about it what does it say, it says you have to go through half the punishment without ever being convicted and all of us are forced to say this is a great thing. There’s something seriously wrong with our system where we put people in jail and forget about them.”
Ramanathan says systemic changes are needed. Bail conditions should be relaxed and trials need be speed up he says.
She also wants to see the police and the judiciary held responsible for cases like Mohammad Aamir and Vajai Kumari--- who spent years locked up for no reason.
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