Opinion: When criminal justice systems don’t exist

In Canada, we take our criminal justice system for granted. You’ll often hear that it’s broken or not strict enough. That it’s inefficient. While some of this may be true, it’s important to take a step back and look at things with a wider lens. Canada has one of the best criminal justice systems in the world. Some countries don’t even have the luxury of being able to say that their system is broken, because they don’t have one.

Take, for example, an event that occurred in Sudan.

In 2007, Sudan was considered a failed state. There was much violent unrest in the country. The UN came in on a peacekeeping mission. Prof. Galib Bhayani, who sometimes teaches at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, was brought in as a regional security chief. His responsibility was to maintain the safety of the 200 UN employees working under him. As the regional security chief, he would get the first phone call if anything happened to his workers.

One morning he got one such phone call. One of his 75 security guards had been stopped for drinking and had been arrested. In Sudan at the time, being a Muslim state, consuming alcohol was an severe crime. After Bhayani received the call, he arrived at the scene and asked to speak to his man. (His name is being withheld for reasons of safety, he’ll be referred to as Abdul.) When Bhayani saw and spoke to Abdul, he was convinced that Abdul hadn’t had a drop of liquor. Having been a police officer for over 20 years, Bhayani had become familiar with the mannerisms and smell of drunk people. Abdul showed none.

“Turned out, longer story on this piece was that there was a neighbour dispute,” said Bhayani. “The neighbor felt that [Abdul] was being inappropriate with his wife, and decided to make this allegation to the police.”

The police told Bhayani that Abdul would have to undergo what they in Sudan called a breath test. Bhayani was initially optimistic, as a breath test would immediately prove Abdul’s innocence. When they went to the hospital, Bhayani was under the impression that the breath test would be conducted by a machine. Abdul would breathe into it, then it would give a reading of his blood-alcohol level. However, Sudanese breath tests are remarkably different from Canadian breathalyzers.

“It turned out to be a nurse rolling up a piece of paper and asking him to blow in it while she smelt his breath on the other side,” Bhayani said. “Not scientific in any way, but conclusive in their mind, and that was enough to get [Abdul] in jail.”

Abdul had only two choices left to him, he could either plead guilty and receive his punishment or plead not guilty and wait for a trial. The problem with pleading not guilty, was that it could take a period of time before there was even a trial, and he would have to spend that time in jail. Sudanese jails are also horrific: prisoners would receive only one meal a day from the prison and others would have to be provided by their family. Yhere would sometimes be 20 men in one cell at a time.

Abdul decided that he could not spend any time in jail both because of its brutality but also because his family depended on him to provide. Abdul plead guilty and received 50 lashes, then was let go. From the moment that Bhayani received the phone call to the minute that Abdul was released only 18 hours had passed. Abdul went work the next day because his family couldn’t afford to have him miss the little pay that he was receiving.

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