Karachi: Married as a child and wrongly jailed for nearly 20 years for the murder of her husband in Pakistan, Rani Bibi is now free and fighting for compensation in a test case for thousands of other false sentences.
Aunt was only 13 years old when the police arrested her for killing her husband whom she remembered “as a good person”.
Her parents and brothers were also arrested and jailed because they were all the last people to be seen with her husband when the couple visited his family’s home.
But his body – with a head injury due to a blunt weapon – was found buried in his own residence about 25 miles away, according to court documents.
He spent the next 19 years working hard in prison for a crime he did not commit, cooking for hundreds of inmates and sweeping the floor endlessly and maintaining the ground in the sweltering heat.
“I’m doing hard work,” Bibi, 35, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from the village of Midranjha in Punjab province.
Aunt was sentenced to life in prison in 2001 – and then followed a series of mistakes that kept her locked up.
A prison overseer failed to appeal to the high court several times and Bibi was left without a state advisor to represent her and unable to buy a private lawyer.
It was only in 2014 that his appeal was taken after a lawyer, who heads the local charity, met Bibi on a routine prison visit and fought for her release.
In 2017, the Lahore high court acquitted him for lack of evidence and apologized, saying that he was “allowed to suffer in prison solely because (who) lacked enthusiasm from prison authorities”.
“This court feels powerless in compensating him,” the judge said in his order at the time.
But his release marked the start of a new battle.
Pakistan is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – an agreement adopted by the United Nations.
The General Assembly in 1966 guaranteed the right to compensation for victims from wrong sentences.
However, South Asian countries have not included these provisions in local law.
Aunt and her lawyer are now determined to change it.
In March, the Foundation for Fundamental Rights (FFR), a legal advocacy group working for Bibi, submitted a petition demanding that the Punjab government pay compensation for “miscarriage of justice”.
They also called on the government to make new laws to act against wrongdoing in Pakistan, where there are thousands of cases like Bibi, according to the FFR.
In a 2019 report, the group highlighted that in 310 death penalty cases that were tried by the Supreme Court between 2010 and 2018, nearly two of the five prisoners sentenced to death were wrongly convicted.
While Bibi hasn’t asked for a certain amount, she said she hoped compensation would help her buy new bedding, blankets and linens, washing machines, irons and stoves.
“I don’t know if I can claim anything or how much, but I hope they can give me enough so I can buy things for my house,” he said. “I have nothing now.” Aunt has tried to rebuild her life after walking free. He found work as a housemaid and remarried four months ago.
But that’s not easy, said Bibi, who prefers to be called Rani Tanveer, assuming the name of her new husband.
“I’m better off in prison and … single. I burden everyone, my in-laws and even my husband,” he said, describing jibes from his in-laws about his past dowry and not being paid.
When he was arrested, the police also imprisoned his parents and siblings.
His mother was released after six months but his father died of tuberculosis in prison. His brother died of TB soon after he was released 15 years later, leaving no one to pay for his dowry.
Auntie said she wanted to get enough money so that she could get “just a little respect”.
But to now arrange food every day is difficult after she and her husband, a day laborer, lost their jobs amid the coronavirus lockdown, forcing them to move in with their families.
The lockdown also delayed the trial.
He recalled his childhood when “there was always plenty of food” but added that his family had to sell all their property, including cows and poultry, to pay legal fees.
She said that she was a bad girl with fast and warm laughter, but nearly two decades in prison made her an angry woman with a “spicy tongue”.
“My mother said there was a devil inside me and I could not control my anger. She wanted to drive me away,” he said.
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