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Punishing Suspects

October 12, 2014

There’s an ancient principle of law, arising from the Roman era:  A person must be presumed innocent until proven guilty.  This is a widespread civil right, even for people who are accused of or charged with a crime.  It means that you can’t punish suspects until they have been convicted.  Unfortunately, this principle is being eroded in a variety of situations.

In many places, police can confiscate funds or property if they believe that a crime has been committed.  In Manitoba, it’s mostly small amounts of money from suspected drug dealers.  They call it possible proceeds of illegal activity.  Generally, there’s no further proof and no attempt by the person to retrieve their money.  This article from the Free Press complains about the activity.  In some US states, the practice is even more blatant and widespread.

Some countries revoke the citizenship or the passport of a person who leaves the country with the intention to fight for an enemy group.  Some countries only do this for people with dual citizenship.  The problem, of course, is that they are only suspected of aiding the enemy.  They also can’t oppose this action in court because they can’t re-enter the country without a passport.  This is certainly a case of suspects being punished by limiting their right to travel and return home.  They should at least get their day in court in their own country.

Drone strikes are even worse.  None of the people being killed have been convicted of a crime.  This is a case of suspects being executed without valid legal process.  Sometimes they are not even identified before being killed.  Sometimes innocent civilians die along with the suspect who was the target of the rocket.  The flimsy legal justification can’t be allowed to overrule the ancient legal principle.

Labelling people as members of a reviled group has powerful effects.  It encourages public prejudice.  It makes it easier to deprive people of their civil rights.  The public sees them only as unpatriotic foreigners, different from themselves.  Society must accomodate a diversity of opinion and belief in order to protect itself.

The current epithet is terrorist.  The public seems willing to believe the accusation, even without proof that will stand up in a court of law.  Even well-respected authors invited to address a conference have been barred by such accusations.  Before that it was communist.  Nobel prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez was kept out of the US because of that one.  Even before that, it was bolshevik.  That was the term used for the strikers in the 1919 general strike in Winnipeg.

You can’t punish suspects.  We must defend anyone who is being punished without being convicted, even if we don’t like the person or the group to which they belong.  It’s the only way.


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