A Case of The Trial

A review of Sadakat Kadri’s The Trial which looks at the history of the criminal trial from the days of Socrates to the trial of OJ Simpson.




“Each time a defendant comes to court and contests his or her guilt, a process unfolds that reiterates precepts that are central to the self-image of modern democracy.”

The law is reason, free from passion. Or so said Aristotle. The crux of Sadakat Kadri’s The Trial attempts to prove the opposite. Kadri’s ambitious book looks at the western criminal trial from the days of Socrates to the more recent trial of OJ Simpson. It traces the contours of law, and finds the interdependence of reason with passion, juxtaposing one with the other. Each chapter navigates a particular era, rummages through its social fabric and seeks to explain the evolution of the law. The book is divided into eight thematic and chronological chapters. Kadri explicates notions of fairness and justice, emotions and passions and correlates each to the society and its norms.

While modern criminal trials in western societies are considered secular, founded on reason, their existence has been shaped by religion and superstitions. Kadri tries to poke into these aspects in the first chapter, which looks at the conflict between the need to ‘punish’ and the fear of mistakes. The idea of the law “descending directly from the gods”, and hence the onus of its adjudication on them, is tacitly explored. Kadri uses the story of Oresteia, by Aeschylus – “The oldest courtroom drama” to reflect on the tension between the two ideas of justice that were at odds with one another. The first, assumptions that people were at fault only if they had done evil deliberately. The second, that some deeds demanded punishment, regardless of the perpetrators intention, if the rage of the gods was to be forestalled. Kadri then goes through the trials of the Greek and Roman eras, describing their rationale in detail. He mentions practices such as ordeal (drowning, freezing), combat, compurgation (proving innocence by making gathered crowds swear it) to carve out the idea of justice.

The chapters on The Inquisition (or orthodoxy revisited), The Witch Trial, and the Trials of Animals, Corpses and Things (even against weevils that threatened vineyards, and the “defunct decedents” who died before they could be called for their cases, but were tried after their death) are downright fascinating. They challenge every modern notion of rationality, and portray the banalities that societies across the world considered fair and legal at some point in their history.

The subsequent chapters delve into modern times, starting with the Moscow Show Trials. The chapter on the “War Crimes Trial” – rips the visage of idealism and justice with respect to international law, from the Nuremberg Trials onward. What Kadri calls a “shameful little secret of international criminal law” is the fact that “Nuremberg was conceived in Moscow and came into being despite the wishes of the western allies rather than because of them.” Kadri explains how the western Allied leaders “resolved to reiterate Churchill’s earlier proposals for extrajudicial killings. Stalin would be asked to approve a loss of “50–100… world outlaws” who were to be “executed summarily on capture and without recourse to the method of trial, conviction and judicial sentence”.

The last chapter dedicated to the Jury Trial looks at the modern Jury system and the role and significance of evidence. Kadri details how the Jury system has become a part of every country that saw the shadow of the British Empire, barring a few. He talks about it being a venerated system of justice in the US and UK. Kadri argues that jury trials outline perpetrators as ‘bad’, so as to define what is good. That in exposing criminals to a community denunciation, it reestablishes to the citizens that they are law abiding, morally sound characters in contrast to the immoral defendants being persecuted. Through multiple cases and their absurd resolutions, Kadri then goes on to note how juries are fallible. The most disputed questions at a criminal trial are the credibility of the witnesses, the reasoning behind the beliefs and doubts, and whether such issues demand “social legitimacy” rather than “fiendish cleverness”. He concludes that jurors may not be oracles, but their diversity allows their potential failings to cancel each other out. The “prejudices and stupidities of like-minded professionals are less likely to – and those of one judge never can.”

The Trial is not an easy read. It is encyclopedic and at times hard to digest, given the magnitude of information that has been condensed within its pages. While Kadri notes that the book is specifically on the jury system of criminal trials, it does not adequately address why countries such as India, Singapore and Malaysia do not follow this system. Nor does he assess the deficiencies of other systems in comparison to the Jury system. Though it is thematic, it often digresses from case to case, making too many points at once. However, Kadri’s writing, his analysis peppered with fascinating examples, and passionate interjections absolve most of its flaws and keep the pace. Like his other book Heaven on Earth – a legal history of the Sharia laws across the Muslim world – The Trial attempts to analyse multiple themes and ideas, and then contextualise their relevance through time.

Kadri’s views of the criminal trial often make the reader introspect on the nature of justice. How is justice defined and what does it mean to each stakeholder – the society, the defendant and the victim? Assessing this is not simple. It means understanding the norm, beliefs, identity and geographies of the lands where it was served. It also means understanding that law and order that seek to be evidential and rational, are products of evolving sentiments and emotions, and it is these which eventually frame notions of justice and fairness. Kadri is often pessimistic and cynical of the criminal trial. He reveals its rot and decay, its fallacies, inconsistencies and the blatant misconstruction of the ideas of justice. He looks at the problems with evidence, and the manipulation of arguments that distort the empiricism of the jury.

However, his conclusion is not pessimistic. Like its namesake by Kafka, the book delves into the surreal aspects of a judicial system. Each chapter is punctuated with quotes from Kafka’s novel that reaffirm the absurdity of a system perceived to be an ideal. But the case Kadri does make in his cynical view of the trial is that it is the best of all the alternatives, and that the current form of the judicial system in Western nations has evolved into this state of imperfect perfection, after centuries of trials, errors and realisations. He says that the crucial question remains whether there exists an alternative that can command equal respect and more confidence.

He concludes that each time a defendant comes to court and contests his or her guilt, a process unfolds that reiterates precepts that are central to the self-image of modern democracy. The criminal trial portrays “a state that is sufficiently self controlled to precent public officials from unilaterally deciding anyone’s fate, and humble enough to trust its citizens to watch the law in action – even, sometimes, to do justice themselves”. Kadri affirms that the criminal trial literally enacts the meaning of human dignity –“showing a civilization that treats its most despicable enemies with respect – presuming them innocent, confronting them as equals, and giving them a champion to argue their cause”.

Trials then are more than just idealised or flawed spectacles. They stand as testimonies to the idea that despite human inconsistency and irrationality, the best form of reasoned and well-argued deliberations should always triumph over any instinctive and savage desire for punishment or retribution.

( This post was originally published on No Man’s Land)

Critical unlearning: Making the journey from school to university


Ever since February 9, news on the media and social media has been dominated by JNU. The fallout of an event organised by 8 students to protest the ‘judicial killing’ of a ‘terrorist’ has been spectacular. Taxpayers are angry that their money is going towards breeding the next generation’s terrorists, while social media trolls are calling for a shut down of the entire university. The purpose of this piece is not to engage in a political polemic on the events that happened in JNU, but rather is an attempt to explain the context of the education provided there, its impact on research and finally  the importance of a university in inculcating a spirit of inquiry and thinking. Before that, this piece highlights the importance of university education by differentiating it from school education.

Over the last four years, in my capacity as a teacher of History and Political Science, I have always encouraged my students to express their thoughts and beliefs, no matter how controversial or uncomfortable they may be to me or their peers. I have had students asking why certain religious groups commit acts of terror, or why do we need to talk about caste now that untouchability has been made illegal by the constitution. The importance of this lies in the fact that views have contexts and pasts and if one is to engage with contradictory views and start a dialogue it becomes important not just to listen but to understand the other and not to resort to mud-slinging. It would be very easy to isolate, demonise and exclude those students who harbour these views. However, this is where the problem arises. As a teacher, immense responsibility is placed on how to handle such delicate situations. Only by giving these students the space to express these views can one even begin a discussion to help them see the limitations of their argument, which has perhaps been drawn from incomplete or biased information.

I have learnt that it is vitally important that ‘impressionable’ kids get exposed to uncomfortable truths at an early age, to spare them the shock of hearing it in their foreign universities, where they might be fearful of having to tackle this ‘radical’ new learning without guidance. As such, events are dissected and examined through various prisms. While learning about our national movement, important aspects such as gender, caste and labour are incorporated and students are then made to look at some of the limitations that many nationalist leaders had. None of this is designed to instill disrespect or disloyalty, but only meant to show how hero-worship and one interpretation is not healthy in the long run.

The unfortunate part however is that our school education system caters to rote learning and memorisation, thus criminally depriving students and teachers of the joy of understanding the essence of the liberal arts. Moreover, the school culture in our country places emphasis on discipline, conformity and standardized learning, which, while it may ensure admission into a prestigious university, does not train students for the journey that happens in the university.


With regards to the space of a university, unlike a school, this is a place where defying authority and rules is essential. The education in the university is testament to this, as board curricula, and individual textbooks give way to closer peer to peer interaction through tutorial discussions and reading lists prescribed by professors in their courses. Events in post 1947 India, often regarded as controversial and complex and therefore shamefully ignored in our school curriculum, become an essential part of classroom discussion. It is here that realities of the nation are brought out- the ‘integration of the states’, the question of languages, regional identities and caste conflicts and so on. Here, readings hitherto unknown to the student must be read if they are to excel both in their exams and tutorials. For example, Mein Kampf was an essential read in a paper on ‘Right-Wing Movements in Europe’, for it brought into the open an individual’s carefully constructed vision for the nation. The writings of Ramaswamy Naicker which is filled with vitriol against Brahminism, Hinduism and the Congress party, were necessary reading in order to bring about the contradictory nature of the mainstream nationalist movement, which tends to ignore caste in public debate. Readings of B.R. Ambedkar on questions of caste include scathing attacks on Hinduism, as well as refutations of ‘Mahatmas’. An event such as the French Revolution, so easily understood as the event which ushered in the era of Democracy, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity was called a ‘Myth’ by the historian Alfred Cobbane. Reading the Constituent Assembly debates, particularly on language brought out the tension that was prevalent in the country at the time, and shattered a pre-existing myth that Hindi was spoken by a majority of the population. Understanding the Anti-Hindi agitation and the practical usage of English went a long way in mitigating those previously held ‘truths’.


At first glance, the student has a right to be aggrieved, as his or her education in school has imbibed a sense of patriotism, loyalty and support for the country. Reading the intellectual genius (and in many cases violence) of the above mentioned individuals can be harmful if not approached the correct way. This is where pedagogy at JNU becomes important to understand. Professors are mindful that students come from different backgrounds and as a result the objective is not to instruct through a political prism, but rather through a critical unlearning of the past, to freshen the mind, and finally to instill a sense of questioning. The student does not become disloyal or dare I say anti-national, but is only increasing his or her potential for research and understanding, both important tools in the job market and academia. The notion of questioning goes a long way in shaping the student’s individual thoughts which are then expressed either through speech or writing.


In-between school and one’s job lies the experience of a university. At the extreme ends, specific tasks are required to be fulfilled, often ending up in mundane routines which do not give scope to the student to play with ideas and decipher right from wrong. In the university, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. This is a place where Gandhi battles with Ambedkar on the question of Caste, Adam Smith and Karl Marx engage on economics, Nehru and Bose discuss nationalism, Periyar questions India, while Savarkar and Jinnah provide their own inputs on the two nation theory. It is in this context that we must view the university. The education here is not the accumulation of facts but rather the exposure to uncomfortable truths which every student of the social sciences must be exposed to. Tutorial discussions make the students go beyond their comfort zones in order to defend their views and findings, and reach conclusions not on emotion or sentiment but analysis and reason.


Interactions with people from different regions and identities provides students the opportunities to learn about not just their peers but also their own unique histories. While a student from Delhi or Mumbai might not accept  the idea of ‘azaadi’ for states from the union, a young Kashmiri student’s perspective on the reality of the state or a Manipuri’s tales of the state atrocities in his or her state goes a long way in eliminating certain myths and stereotypes one harbours from the days of the school. Here, information is not provided through the biases of politics nor through the sensationalist media, but through actual written and oral histories. If thinking differently is to be seen as a threat then the university as a concept must be destroyed.

The university is the ground for the formation of political opinion. It is the environment where a student’s beliefs and thoughts are first nurtured and then expressed.There is one other aspect of the university that must be addressed. While the above section has discussed this from an academic perspective, extra curricular activities also go a long way in ensuring a holistic development of the student. As a personal example, I would use the example of college debating societies. These societies or clubs give students the opportunity to engage in constructive argument and dialogue with their peers (for financial rewards in many cases). The methods associated with research once again are drastically different from schools. In the case of schools, a simple cut-copy-paste from the most accurate google search on a topic, followed by memorization and flowery language would seal the deal. In the university, students are discouraged from using technology and rely on the strengths of their logical and critical thinking, as well as contributions from their teammates, which go a long way in developing other skills such as argument construction from scratch and teamwork, other important skills for the future.

Moreover, choosing sides in debates is not subject to a person’s pre-disposed political affiliations or views on issues. Rather, students sometimes are forced to argue on the side of issues which they may have been uncomfortable with during their schooling. On a personal level, I have argued on the side of topics which I may personally disagree with, such as the support for a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the deployment of the armed forces in Naxal affected areas in central India. The point here is not to change one’s beliefs, but only to engage and understand where the other viewpoint stems from. This has two consequences. First, the existing viewpoint one cherishes gets strengthened, as only after engaging with its adversary can the student go further into depths of his or her side and strengthen his or her position on the issue. Second, in an environment where students are constantly challenged, readings, which are sometimes difficult to grasp owing to their own political leanings are slowly absorbed by the mind, through previous experiences of debating and arguing in a civil matter, respectful of both sides. The essence of debating in the university as such, encourages students to think about hitherto taboo issues such as – homosexuality, prostitution, the conduct of the armed forces in conflict zones, among many others in order to instill not cynicism with their own views, but a welcome engagement with others, again an essential tool to take away from the system.
This piece has tried to place the university as a bridge between school and the environment of the work place. While the limitations of both have been highlighted above, it is imperative to understand, that students, once they become workers in various fields will follow definite routines, patterns and structures, and will thus become cogs to an eventual end, which might or not have personal satisfaction. Thus only the space afforded by the university allows for conflict, for disagreement, for engagement, for intellectual competition, for radicalism, and finally for a student to fully develop a frame of thinking which goes beyond the limited confines of prescribed textbooks or work routines. If we as a society continue to view the university as merely an extension of school education, divorced from politics, questioning and challenging authority, we are headed for a future devoid of independent thinking, and choice, which are the hallmarks of any progressive society. To save our society, we must save the university.  

We are Rohith, Kanhaiya and Umar. We are JNU


Over the past few days, we have been trying to untangle the different concerns that have governed the public discourse on Jawaharlal Nehru University. These have ranged from concerns around basic liberties, university autonomy, and the right environment for scholarship and academic discussions, to concerns regarding the targeting of students based on their identities, disciplining of democratic spaces, suppressing and criminalizing dissent, a breakdown of public institutions like the police and courts to ensure the rule of law in the capital city, the kangaroo courts of the media, and the maligning of one of the best educational institutions of the country. Each of these concerns appeal to different concepts, and they seem so tangled with each other that a coherent assessment of each question in a short article might be a tough task. However, at a time when our public discourse has grown so tangled over a few slogans given out in a University, the best one can do is dive into the tangle and make sense of it by asking questions that worry us the most.

When did the word Azaadi become a term that people should not use?

JNU, is one of the beating hearts of social science scholarship (besides having excellent schools in other disciplines as well) in India. It is a place where persons from across classes, castes, regions and genders, can assertively make arguments that matter to them. These arguments are often driven by their own experiences, or the experiences of those they are in solidarity with. Most importantly, it is a place where scholarship and knowledge are held as the highest virtues that form the basis of its deliberation.

Why is such a University a place where Hum kya chaahtey.. Azaadi! (What do we want? Freedom!)  become a slogan that is celebrated by a few students? This is not a slogan that was popularly raised on campus earlier. However, at the last meeting I attended inside the JNU campus (before it became a den for Dilli Police and media vans), on 31st January 2016- Rohith Vemula’s birthday, this slogan was given after a range of slogans in the name of Birsa, Phule and Ambedkar. It surprised me initially. Hum kya chaahtey.. Azaadi.., was a slogan generally given in meetings of solidarity with the right to self-determination of the people of Kashmir, a cause that many in JNU have been sensitive to, even if some have not wholeheartedly supported it with as much fervor as other causes. And here it was, being sung during a meeting against a systematic and protracted act of institutional humiliation extended to a Dalit student, driving him to his death. The slogan was followed by several others, which in the JNU fashion, expanded on the previous slogan: Manusmriti se azaadi, brahmanvaad se azaadi..! (Freedom from Manusmriti! Freedom from Brahmanism!). I joined these slogans with some enthusiasm. The words just appealed to me for their simplicity, and the clear plea it made to those present to throw off institutions like caste which made someone feel that his birth ‘was a fatal accident’. The slogans of the Kashmiri people for azaadi from repeated conflict and curfew, to have a democratic say in the laws that govern them – especially AFSPA, and for the dignity to conceptualize one’s own way of life, had also appealed to the students of JNU.

The students of JNU were not merely giving out a slogan for liberty for themselves, but for the Dalit students who had been suspended from their hostels and classes in the University of Hyderabad. There are many who, over the past few weeks have asked, why the students from JNU had to carry out marches in solidarity with Rohith Vemula. To these questions, many of us would reply saying that we do not see showing solidarity with Dalit students, nor building a feeling of fraternity among the student community over it, as a waste of time, or a process devoid of study and scholarship. We see it as the process of building the background conditions of care, trust and respect for rights, all necessary for public reason to develop in a free and democratic society.

What happens to the public reason of a free and democratic society, when it denies background principles of care, trust, and respect for rights, in political and academic life to people in its capital city?

After studying for many years in JNU, I have come to understand a democratic culture as one that works best with the background conditions of care, trust, and respect for rights. It works when public political culture is constantly assessed and reworked as it interacts with diverse and dissenting views. In JNU, in particular, it works through scholarly discussions in classrooms and seminars, late evening deliberations over chai or a solidarity march, through plays that are interactively enacted with the audience at the different meeting points of JNU, reading parchas over dinner, endless debates in each other’s rooms, and attending General Body Meetings on campus regularly. The JNU culture is not a myth- it is a culture that trusts each other before questioning each other, which cares for the answers that the other person has to give, which respects that others have different opinions. Most importantly, it is a culture which prides itself in how secure it is in the foundational values that guide these opinions – equality, justice and freedom. This is a culture which confidently says Hum apna adhikaar maanghte hain, Nahin kisi se bheek maanghte hain. (We demand our rights, we do not have to beg anyone for them.)

Over the past one week, questions have been raised over the credibility of the University simply because its students are doing exactly this – asserting their rights in their own way. Third rate news anchors have gained coverage for patronizingly telling the students of JNU to “stop doing politics” and “start studying”, the capacity of JNU students to do their duties before they ask for their rights has become a raging issue on social media. A PhD student, who among other things referred to Afzal Guru’s death as a judicial killing, is being branded by the media of being associated with terrorist organizations. Police reports are being filed against students for holding meetings over when and how Mahishasur is the good guy instead of Durga, and for inviting SAR Geelani to talk on campus. The JNU Students Union President, no small post to hold when you are part of the academic community, has been arrested, and repeatedly mauled outside court rooms, for supposed seditious activity of which there is no proof. The university and its activities have been maligned because some unidentified persons gave out some questionable slogans, supposedly on campus.

What happens to a society where scholarship becomes victim to disciplining by the Government and the majority backing it?

The campaign to malign JNU seems to stem from an idea that universities and students are arenas where thoughts are disciplined, rather than given the dignity to grow on their own. If education in such institutions is being subsidized by the Government, then the ‘consumers’ of this subsidized education must be obedient to the dictates of the majority backing the Government thinking. If they question what the Government does, or how the state apparatus functions, then they should be taught a lesson for employing the ‘privilege’ the majority gives them of talking, by questioning the majority itself. Many of us are aware that this maligning is not extended to JNU alone – it was extended to Rohith, it is regularly extended to the people of Kashmir and North East India, to Muslim citizens who have been detained without any substantive charges against them, to Dalit and Tribal communities who simply want to assert their democratic voice guaranteed to them by law.

JNU seems to have become a test case for a Government that wants to practice suppressive disciplinary methods against those who want to voice their claim as part of the sovereign people of this democracy. Unfortunately for the Government, JNU has a long history of questioning suppression in an informed manner. Our slogans have imbibed this questioning too: Dum hai kitna daman main terey, dekh liya hai, dekhenge (We have seen how much strength your suppression has had in the past. We will see how much strength it has now too!)[i]. This test case will not be validated.

The students of JNU are not consumers of taxpayers money alone. We are producers of research, and based on this research we have stood in solidarity with various movements of the marginalized in this country. We question how the law can be made more sensible to the people of this country. We don’t just use the writings of Marx and Lenin, but are also inspired by the writings of Ambedkar and Periyar, Gandhi and Azad, Ramabai and Bordoloi in doing so. This doesn’t amount to a waste of taxpayers money. It is what taxpayers money is supposed to do: enable the citizenry to think of how their state should be, and what their state should do.

When did it become a wrong thing to say that we want liberty and equality to be the governing principles of our constitutional democracy?

We don’t think that the state should send in the might of its police, led by an inarticulate and deeply imprudent BS Bassi, to interrogate students on the validity of treating Afzal Guru as a martyr, or supporting the claims of the people of Kashmir on their right to self-determination. This is a conversation to be had in a democratic and scholarly space that our university embodies. If there were slogans given for the “Bharat ki barbaadi” then, given that there was no incitement to imminent violence after these calls, there can be no charges of sedition against whoever gave these slogans either. Unlike the Bhakts of ‘BharatMata’, JNU doesn’t expect its Students Union president to admonish fellow students like their mothers would. It expects students, as self-authenticating members of the student body, to responsibly justify to the student body why they felt the need to make these slogans, especially against the criticisms that were immediately posed to them. The Students of JNU certainly do not expect a complete breakdown of the institutional apparatus of the police and courts to take place in the capital of India, they do not expect their Professors and fellow students to get mauled and beaten up by lawyers who still roam free in the name of nationalism.

If we, as a democracy, are to continuously engage with the question of how to extend the principles of social cooperation to all citizens with equal respect, then suppressing those voicing concerns of the marginalized is certainly not the way to go about it. The students of JNU are simply asking if the majority wishes to acknowledge the legitimate claims of the minority. If it does, it cannot put conditions, tested by media trials and preemptive detentions, on these voices. The students of JNU also ask these questions publicly, by engaging with different moral doctrines, and not by throwing up imageries of a Mother India.

Like some of the best universities in the world, the students of JNU dream of a society with ideals that can freely and equally give its citizens unbounded possibilities. These are not unreasonable demands to make of a constitutional democracy. They are the demands of those who want liberty and equality to be the governing principles of our social and political lives.



[i] This is not a completely satisfactory translation of the original slogan in Hindi.

Cyber Feminism: How technology is being used to fight violence against women

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 08.58.13Technology has brought violence against women to a whole new level. Privately taken  nude pictures are no longer limited to a single copy in possession of the individual but are now on smartphones and one angry ex-boyfriend is all it takes to ruin a girl’s reputation online. As we are all aware, no matter the reason someone decides to publicly humiliate a woman, she gets more scrutiny than empathy once her reputation is on the line. With the advent of the internet, things have only gotten worse.

In March 2015, we had the chance to see the “patient zero” of slut shaming speak up. Monica Lewinsky demanded to tell her own story on a TED talk in Vancouver. For 20 minutes, she narrated 17 years of public humiliation. She said her case was the first one to break online instead of on  traditional media. She continues to deal with violence online up to this day.


Old problems, new tools. Soon enough, we all discovered the devastating power of technology and how it has become so easy to hate. For women in general, violence took on one more avatar in slut shaming. It looked like more of the same: women as a target for how they look, for taking nude pictures, for having sex or even just because they exist.


But that same technology is now being used to fight all of that and more. Feminist groups and organizations are developing a variety of forms to combat violence and restore women’s confidence.


In the very recent past feminist groups were restricted by technology. They hardly made headlines with their actions, aside from demonstrations, but they produced vast material in the form of magazines, pamphlets and academic work. Slowly, traditional feminist organizations migrated to online media and started to create a space for their voices to be heard through websites. The internet made it possible for all to have access to information and to slowly start to get a sense of the amount of work put into the cause.


With social media a new feminism is rising, one that challenges slut shaming. This generation of girls took charge on blogs, Twitter and vlogs on YouTube. Discussion groups on Facebook are especially effective to organize protests, create new content or even just to help a girl defend herself against any kind of misogynistic attack.


The power of social media is so strong that it is changing the way women’s magazines are written, children’s toys are designed by bringing to light the different forms of sexism hidden in the mundane.


One specific cause that the new wave of feminism on social media addresses is street harassment. Not long ago – about two years ago – it was considered just some annoying part of women’s lives; you go out, you get catcalled and that is what it is. But after a nasty comment, one girl went on her social media page and complained about it. Another girl followed. Another five girls followed. And about 45 girls “liked” it. Suddenly something that had been socially accepted, even celebrated for so long was finally shown to be another face of violence.


In order to show the world how much street harassment can ruin our days a few groups took on new technology to expose this problem. Using Google maps, they asked women to pin places where they were harassed and tell their stories. The campaigns were national, but similar in different parts of the globe. In Egypt, the HarassMap showed not just catcalling stories, but also situations of gang-abuse and women being assaulted during the Arab Spring demonstrations. A campaign in Brazil called Chega de Fiu Fiu (Enough of Whistling) conducted empirical research to prove that women actually do not like to be catcalled. They also created their own map. Hollaback, a global initiative based in the USA, has their own maps of testimonials as well as an app, so women can pin an incident of harassment at the same time it occurs. A similar app was also adopted by a project in South Africa called Blow the Whistle.


Another Brazilian initiative called PLP 2.0 took it a step further and connected their app to the police. Aimed at domestic violence, this app follows specific cases and works as a panic button if a woman is attacked. It is still restricted to one city but is slowly increasing the area it covers.


There are countless such projects around the world that use technology to amplify their work. Several times we might see different groups working on similar ideas, not knowing that someone, in a different part of the globe, has a solution they haven’t thought off yet. Feminist activists needs a global database.


In order to document feminist projects and connect similar ones, I created FemMap , a collaborative website that gathers information about projects focused on gender equality. It works both as a database and as a communication channel. As the platform gets more collaborators, it becomes a significant source of information about what type of projects are being done and the best practices for each idea. Through FemMap, groups can avoid redundancies in their work and help other organizations in whatever capacity they can- material, coding or simply better ideas to make it happen. We are using technology to break country and culture barriers.


It’s important to know how to benefit from technology and make it available to all. By working together, feminist groups are able to learn from mistakes made by others. Achieving gender equality is a long and bumpy road, so it’s always good to know we can get help.


Between solidarity and rejection – Harshening of the asylum law in Germany


“We don’t need clothes or money. We need a new political and legal system. I think that should be in focus,” said Adam Bahar. Living in exile in Berlin, Germany, he was at a debate in November 2015 called “Solidarity or Charity?” about the meaning of a new “welcome culture” in the country. Bahar wanted to go further. As a political activist from Sudan, he is part of the movement from Oranienplatz – a square in the capital Berlin, where refugees from all over Germany united and lived from 2012 to 2014, challenging the German law’s obligation of not leaving the area where a refugee is registered.


After fighting against this law, ensuring its partial withdrawal, and seeing its return last year, the movement now argues against new harsher measures for refugees, after almost 1.1 million asylum seekers arrived into Germany in 2015. However, the Oranienplatz movement, which once got a lot of attention with a camp occupying a central square in Berlin, is not the focus of the media anymore.


In 2015, German newspapers, TVs and citizens concentrated on the journey and the reception of new refugees, and on the debates on solidarity. That shifted, though, with the massive sexual assaults (including two rapes) during New Year’s Eve in the city of Cologne, where there are accounts of one thousand men involved. Victims declared that the offenders seemed to have North African origin.


The crimes fostered proposals of changes in the law, now also in the focus of international media. But most of the reforms in Germany’s asylum law have been already discussed – and some approved – since last year, while the focus of the media was on the “open doors” for refugees and the solidarity shown by the country and its leader, Angela Merkel, who has won accolades including “personality of the year” by Time magazine for her firmness and humanity.


By then Germany had already approved a law restricting some of the rights of refugees, and prepared what is internally referred as Asylpacket II, which had been planned since the beginning of November. But events such as the terrorist’s attacks in Paris in November  and the sexual offences in Cologne have given them support and fostered a greater toughening of  the German asylum law.


List of ‘safe countries’ is extended, and expulsion of their citizens will be easier

The law that came into force on October 24th 2015 refers to the process of asylum. In less than a month it was discussed and voted by the two legislative houses, despite the resistance from the main asylum associations in the country. The list of the so-called “safe countries of origin” (the premise being that there is no need for leaving and seeking asylum) was enlarged, including Kosovo, Albania and Montenegro. Asylum seekers who come from those countries have to live in an emergency shelter until their request is analysed. Also according to the new law asylum seekers from “non-safe countries” can stay up to six months in emergency shelters and not three months anymore. That means the period of time they can’t work is also extended.


In early November, the federal government proposed further modifications to the right of asylum, giving origin to Asylpacket II. Both terrorists’ attacks in Paris and sexual offences in Cologne postponed an agreement among the government’s coalition parties and resulted in harsher measures being proposed. After weeks of debates and divergences, they have agreed on the proposals last Thursday, and will now send a draft law to Parliament.


The newest one, not foreseen two months ago, is the inclusion of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia – the countries where many of the suspects of sexual assaults in Cologne come from – in the list of “safe countries”. If Asypacket II is approved, asylum seekers from “safe countries” and the ones with no identity documents will be kept in special centres of reception. The whole legal procedure involving them will take only one week, and in three weeks they can be expelled. Besides that, there won’t be a medical justification for non-expulsion anymore and it will be done at anytime, without fixing a date.


The main point of controversy inside the government’s coalition was decided against the refugees: people who receive “subsidiary protection” from the government (they don’t have the right to asylum, but are tolerated for humanitarian reasons) will have the right to family reunification only after two years in the country. The whole package is contested by NGOs such as The Council for Refugees in Germany and ProAsyl, which declared last Friday “it is a frontal attack against the right of asylum” and explained its objection to each of the changes.


Shifts in German public opinion


After activist Adam Bahar defended a new political and legal system changes in the law actually came into focus but surely in a different direction from the one expected by refugees’ movements such as the one from Oranienplatz. Solidarity is still the defining characteristic of German civil society towards refugees. In general, though, internal media and public discussions are not concentrating so much on the suffering of migrants anymore but on how the country is going to integrate so many people from cultures where, for example, different attitudes to women are in place. In this process, sets of rights are put against each other in simplifying ways – “refugees’ rights” versus “women’s rights”, for example.


The crimes in Cologne have highlighted feelings of rejection and fear of what is considered by many European citizens as homogeneous traces of whole cultures/nations. Last week, it came to light that known nightclubs in the city of Freiburg are forbidding the entrance of asylum seekers. Not far from there, in Villingen-Schwenningen, there was an attack last Thursday against a refugee shelter with a hand grenade, which didn’t explode. The crimes in Cologne have not only fostered waves of right-wing demonstrations and burnings of refugees’ shelters, but also provoked a change in public opinion, or at least were the final straw in the process. And there lays the support for changes in the law.


The idea of an acceleration of the legal process combined with a more rigorous control of asylum seekers is now seen as an adequate response to a moment of “crisis” and “urgency”. During the Economic Forum in Davos this month, German President Gauck pointed the possibility of a limitation of the number of accepted refugees, a measure many times publicly rejected by Angela Merkel. And inside CDU the possibility of a new name for running in 2017’s elections is even beginning to be considered, as the Chancellor, seen by many Germans as being too open to refugees, is losing popularity.


Germany is far from approving a law such as Denmark did last week, which allows police to confiscate cash and valuables worth more than 10,000 kroner (almost 1,5000 dollars) from asylum seekers. In spite of that, the risk is that a new set of rules will be approved in Germany in face of critical events, and not after a debate regarding refugees’ rights and how countries can create a new legal system that actually deals with contemporary transnationality.

An Introduction to the UN Climate Conference: What Exactly is Happening in Paris?

Governments of the world have been negotiating on climate change for at least as long as I have been alive. This year is the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which aims to conclude a new globally applicable agreement on climate change, under the existing convention.

Geopolitical dynamics dominate the talks. A foundation of the UNFCCC agreement is the concept of “common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities”, which is the idea that countries should contribute, in terms of emissions cuts and finance, in a way that is proportionate to both their responsibility for the problem, and their capacity to help fix it. Although these words sound deceptively simple, the debate over what, precisely, they mean has spanned twenty years.

How did we get here?

At the core of the equity issue is that those countries which have contributed least to the problem are most often the ones that will be most affected by it, yet have the least capacity to adapt. The way climate change will affect those living in the slums of Mumbai or working on subsistence farms in Nicaragua vastly differs from how it will impact those living in suburban England or Norway, yet it is the latter countries who have contributed more, per capita, to the problem and have benefited from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas.

The Kyoto Protocol, the precursor to the agreement currently being negotiated, was founded on a division of countries into “Annex I” (developed) and “Non Annex I” (developing), meaning that only developed countries had to take binding emissions cuts. There will be no such stark dichotomy in the new agreement, which countries have already agreed must be ‘applicable to all’.

Last Saturday, the draft negotiating text was finalised. This text is much improved from the beginning of the conference, with more streamlined language and a lot fewer square brackets (which signify that the text within them is still disputed). But there are still crucial arguments yet to be resolved. Now, at the start of the second week of negotiations, government Ministers have arrived to sort out the trickiest negotiating issues.

The key issues here in Paris

  1. Keeping every country above water

Way back in Cancun in 2010, COP16 agreed to the goal of keeping global average temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius. This is the internationally agreed “safe limit” or “defense line”, meaning that to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change we must stay within 2 degrees.

However, the problem with a 2 degree goal is that many countries, communities and indigenous peoples are already experiencing the adverse effects of climate change, and even a 2 degree increase will cause existential threats. For instance, small island states like the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and Kiribati would be underwater in a 2 degree world. As a result, there is a large campaign here to move the long term goal from 2 degrees to 1.5 degrees.

One of the most interesting developments so far at COP is that many countries – at last count numbering over one hundred – have come out in support of including a reference to a 1.5 degree goal in the agreement. This will be one of the most interesting things to track over the next few days.

But we still see that there are several options for the long term goal in the draft agreement.

  1. Raising ambition

A crucial issue here in Paris is that so far countries’ Intended Nationally Determined Contributions have only added up to enough emissions reductions to lead to 2.7 degrees of average global warming. This is still far above where we need to be to stay below even the 2 degree target, let alone 1.5. How can the agreement get countries to reduce their emissions to the level required?

The Paris Ambition Mechanism, affectionately known as PAM, is the touted answer to this problem. What it will contain, however, is still up for discussion.

  1. Climate finance, technology transfer and capacity building

Many developing countries argue that to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and adapt to the effects of climate change, finance is required from developed countries. Similarly, it is argued that technology transfer is necessary to help developing countries develop in a low carbon way without being trapped in poverty; it would be immensely unfair if stopping greenhouse gas emissions meant that developing countries were locked into their situations forever.

Developed countries have already agreed to provide US$100 billion worth in finance by 2020, but a key issue in Paris is how this goal will be achieved. Likewise, post-2020 finance – whether and how finance should be scaled up – is proving to be a crucial issue.

Access and participation

But it’s often hard to know what exactly is going on inside those rooms. Civil society observers at the UNFCCC, of which I am one, are not allowed in to many negotiating sessions. Sometimes there is a broadcast from inside meetings, but sometimes not. Sometimes we rely on informal google docs written from inside the meetings just to keep track. Civil society access is a crucial barrier to reaching an effective and equitable agreement, as many developing countries rely on civil society to assist their under-resourced government teams.

Intergenerational equity

Youth participation in this agreement is particularly crucial. The bulk of historical carbon emissions have been caused by generations past, and in particular our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. In addition, people who are not yet born have no say in decisions that affect them.

The youth constituency here in Paris campaigns on including intergenerational equity in the agreement text. This is the idea that there should be equity between generations; present generations should leave a world comparable to the one we grew up in, to afford future generations the same rights and opportunities their ancestors had. But the UNFCCC has now been negotiating for, literally, our whole lives, and we have consistently failed to see adequate climate action. Youth representation at the UNFCCC must be more than token, if we are to effectively address the climate crisis.

The Role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in China’s Judicial Transparency Reform – A non-comprehensive discourse analysis of official documents

Academic and civil society organizations globally have had broad consensus on how to define and measure transparency in the judicial system. It is such a comprehensive issue that there is a whole checklist of key recommendations for judicial transparency ranging from providing public access to judicial proceedings to civil society monitoring of the administration and operation of the courts1. While in China, official discourse on judicial transparency seems to have exclusively emphasized information disclosure as a norm, this article examines the perceived role of ICTs in promoting judicial transparency in China.

Setting the Background

Transparency is identified as a priority in two of China’s most important reform directives – the Decision of the Third2 and Fourth3 Plenary Session of the 18th Communist Party Central Committee (CPCC). In both decisions, transparency is phrased not as “tou ming” (literal translation of transparency) but as “gong kai” (“openness”). Linguistically, whereas “tou ming” contains a more comprehensive meaning and emphasizes the status of being “transparent”; “gong kai” has a narrower meaning of “openness” and focuses on the action of “disclosing” or “revealing”. This has set the tone for the transparency reform – one of the seven key reform areas of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC)’s current Judicial Reform Five Year Plan (2014-2018). Transparency in the judiciary is cross cutting through all aspects of the judicial system, covering issues such as the selection of judges, the justification of decisions, financial disclosure statements and access to the courts by citizens4. China’s Judicial Reform Plan does touch upon issues such as improving its judges’ selection system. Yet it is not framed as transparency but as an issue of trial power. It is interesting, therefore, to see how transparency is understood by the reformers in China, in terms of what is included or excluded compared to global norms, and the reasons for such decisions.

This post does not intend to “measure” how transparent China’s judicial system is; rather, it will provide a glimpse of how and why transparency is defined in a particular way by analyzing three official documents from SPC on judicial transparency – Certain Opinions on Building Three Platforms of Judicial Transparency and Provisions of Publicizing People’s Courts’ Verdicts on the Internet (hereinafter referred to as “Three Platforms”), the Fourth Five Year Plan (2014-2018) (hereinafter referred to as “4th Five-year Plan”), and the White Paper on Judicial Transparency of Chinese Courts (hereinafter referred to as “White Paper”).

Discourse Analysis

“Transparency = ICTs”

The 4th Five-Year Plan of SPC, setting the direction of judicial reform for the next five years, covered seven areas with 65 articles, including a specific Chapter dedicated to “transparency”, calling for building “mechanisms for an open, dynamic, transparent, and convenient sunshine judiciary”5:

“To establish the trial-centered system with Chinese characteristics, it is necessary to rely on modern information technology […] By the end of 2015, establish three [online] platforms that are systematic, complete, and convenient [to disclose information]. ”(4th Five-year Plan, Chapter 5)

Transparency here is narrowly defined as information disclosure and even more interestingly there is an exclusive linkage between information disclosure and the use of ICTs. The “three platforms” here refer to online platforms (e.g. official websites, SMS systems, social media, online broadcasting systems, etc.) to disclose three major types of information: 1) trial process, 2) judgments, verdicts and reconciliation statements, and 3) enforcement information. In November 2013, SPC issued Certain Opinions on Building Three Platforms of Judicial Transparency and Provisions of Publicizing People’s Courts’ Verdicts on the Internet to guide the establishment of the three platforms. The very existence of an official Opinions explicitly issued for the online platforms is a manifestation of the importance attached to ICTs by the judiciary to promote transparency.

Emphasis on ICTs is also evident in the official documents specifically dedicated to transparency. In the White Paper on Judicial Transparency of Chinese Courts, the SPC comprehensively reviewed the achievements of the three platforms and praised their creation as key measures in the new round of reform. “Previously, information was disclosed in a sporadic way by local courts. Building national platforms to disseminate information in a uniform way has improved the practice,”6 said He Xiaorong, who was in charge of drafting the white paper, at the press conference. In the Studies of Judicial Transparency edited by the SPC Judicial Reform Office, 10 out of the 15 selected case studies on international judicial transparency practice are related to the use of ICTs7.

“ICTs is a reason of transparency, not a result”

Normally in China, policy change derives from the leadership of the Party and the influence of other factors is incomparable. But the “information age” may be an exception:

“In the new century and new stage, facing new requirements in the work of the Party and the State, new expectations of the masses and new challenges in the era of information, the deepening of judicial transparency has become more important and urgent.” (White Paper, pp.27)

All these new trends together prompted the courts to be more transparent. In other words, transparency was not traditionally a necessity; it is only made inevitable by the new conditions. It is also rather a “choice” made by the authorities than basic rights of the people:

“Establishing three major platforms for judicial openness is an important strategic measure in the people’s courts adjustment to an information age, and in satisfying the public’s new expectations for judicial openness.” (Three Platforms)

In a transparency-as-rights regime, the right to public information is considered a “fundamental right that the State must enforce and guarantee” 8, which means it is the judiciary’s obligation, not just a “strategic measure”, to not only disclose the information but also ensure the effective enforcement of this right. China clearly has a different mindset.

“The more ICTs the more transparent”

The passion for ICTs goes beyond websites. Anything that can represent “information era” is considered a driver for transparency reform, even when it is only remotely relevant:

“With the rapid development of big data, cloud computing and new media, the speed, models and patterns of information dissemination change greatly, and the masses’ demands for judicial information vary, and under the new situation, the promotion of judicial transparency is facing an unprecedented opportunity and great challenges.” (White Paper, pp.28)

There also seems to be a belief that all ICTs are intrinsically good therefore the more e-channels the better, without a thorough understanding of what medium works best for what communication purpose and how much resources and efforts are implied by each of them:

“The people’s courts at all levels shall make full use of modern information technologies to constantly expand the channels and ways for the public to obtain judicial information by building websites on administrative affairs of courts and 12368 litigation service platform , and making public Weibo and WeChat IDs, mobile news client and president’s email, so as to explore the three-dimensional, one-stop, comprehensive and interactive judicial transparency services to build up a more transparent and open judicial environment.” (White Paper, pp.31)

The limitation of ICTs as a tool and as merely a single aspect for the reform is rarely reflected in the official discourse, not to mention the potential risk of ICT-related issues such as privacy, cyber security and so on.

Why ICTs?

Besides the influence of the on-going global obsession for technology, China’s top judiciary has its own reasons to prioritize ICTs in its reforms.

ICTs is a relatively safe entry-point for sensitive reforms. Creating a space for flexible interpretation by different stakeholders at their convenience is the premise of any intervention in political affairs in China, even within the government. ICTs is such a space: it appears formalistic but has the transformative potential for bigger changes.

It is easier to control, monitor and evaluate. ICT-based reforms by definition have more access to comprehensive data, which makes more sophisticated M&E possible. Furthermore, ICTs can provide as much convenience for the users as for the suppliers. Whoever controls the medium also controls the message, which is a position that the government would like to be at.

It has tangible results. “Justice is not to be done, but to be seen done.” This is one of the most popular quotes in the official documents to justify openness and information disclosure. As an output, a website or a mobile APP is far more visible than “enhanced transparency” or “strengthened capacity”.

Infrastructure comes first. The entire modernization of China is marked by the philosophy of materials over spirits, infrastructure as a premise for substance. By the same logic, when the judiciary decides to be more transparent, the first thing is to strengthen its material basis.


From a non-comprehensive reading of the official documents, it is not difficult to get a sense of the salience of the ICT-focus in China’s efforts to promote transparency in the judicial system. Such seemingly disproportionate representation is deeply rooted in China’s political culture that values risk aversion, information manipulation and publicity. But this is not to discredit the progress that it symbolizes to even consider transparency as a priority for the country’s next five-year judicial reform plan. ICTs could well be an incremental and cautious stimulus to further progressive changes.

(The views expressed in the article are personal)


1 See “Enhancing Judicial Transparency,” Transparency International Policy Position #01/2007, 2008, http://www.transparency.org; “Access to Justice and Legal Information” in Judicial Transparency Checklist, note 15, supra; “Good Practices, Initiatives, and Experiences in Combating Corruption and Promoting Judicial Transparency” in A Guide to Rapid Assessment and Policymaking for the Control of Corruption in Latin American Justice Systems, Due ProcessFoundation, 2007, http://www.dplf.org.

2 “promoting open trial and open prosecution, recording and retaining the entire court hearing and trial material; improving rational explanation of legal documents, and encouraging the court to publicize verdicts in force”

3 promoting a “sunshine judiciary” with more open trials, prosecution, police and prison work, including the timely publication of legal decisions and related documents

4 Access to Information and Transparency in the Judiciary, World Bank, 2010: “the Global Integrity report specifically examines the level of access to information and transparency of the Judicial Branch, using variables such as the selection of judges, the justification of decisions, financial disclosure statements and access to the courts by citizens.”

5 4th Five-year Plan, chapter 5建立中国特色社会主义审判权力运行体系,必须依托现 代信息技术,构建开放、动态、透明、便民的阳光司法机制,增进公众对司法的了 解、信赖和监督。到2015年底,形成体系完备、信息齐全、使用便捷的人民法院审 判流程公开、裁判文书公开和执行信息公开三大平台,建立覆盖全面、系统科学、 便民利民的司法为民机制

6 “China issues white paper on judicial transparency”, Supreme People’s Court, 12 March 2015, http://en.chinacourt.org/public/detail.php?id=4952

7 《司法公开理论问题》

8 Access to Information and Transparency in the Judiciary, World Bank, 2010, pp.43

Reasonable or Magical Restrictions: The Legal System in Harry Potter

For a childrens series, the Harry Potter books have done a remarkable job of winning the hearts of adults across the world. Rowling’s world is a fully realized one, her books providing insight into diffierent magical systems, including banking, retail enterprises, government functions and, of course, the legal system. Unlike Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Lewis’s Narnia, none of these systems are perfect specimens of how things ‘should’ work in the real world. In this essay, I’m going to examine one of those: the legal system and its many pitfalls in the Potterverse.


Legal System in Potterverse

1. Breaking down the legal system

Pre trial Phase

The British wizarding world seems to follow a very simple legal process. If a witch or wizard is found to have violated one or more laws, the Ministry of Magic either sends a notice alerting them to it and summoning them to a hearing (for the less dire offences, like Harrys Patronus) or sends law enforcement officials to apprehend them (for obvious human rights and safety violations like Siriuss supposed destruction of a street and murder of twelve bystanders). After this notice/arrest, there is a trial, the consequences of which are (in the cases outlined above) expulsion and exile from the magical community, or detention in Azkaban.

The Trial

The trial of a wizard is best illustrated in Order of the Phoenix, when Harry is summoned in connection to his flouting of the Decree for the Restriction of Underage Sorcery. In the wizarding world criminal trials take place before a body known as the Wizengamot, a collection of nominated witches and wizards who, like a jury, vote upon the guilt or innocence of the party being interrogated. There appear to be no legal counsels, only interrogatorsand witnesses. The interrogators are in charge of questioning the alleged culprit and the defendant himself is responsible for convincing the Wizengamot of his or her innocence, or relying on a witness to do so. The trial therefore, is inherently an unfair one. Nor is the Wizengamots decision an anonymous one, like that of a real lifejury. Instead of retreating into a room and coming forth only when they have arrived upon a verdict (and not disclosing who voted what) the members raise their hands before the defendant, allowing him or her to see who stands with or against them.


As noted above, punishment in the wizarding world, so far as we can see, seems to take two forms- the expulsion of the culprit through snapping his or her wand and banning him or her from doing magic or deporting the individual for a term in the prison Azkaban. In many cases this is in itself a death sentence, with prisoners either going mad or starving themselves to death on the island. It is rare to see an individual emerge from Azkaban unscathed. Even Sirius Black, the only prisoner to have not gone mad within the walls, comes out emotionally arrested, unable to move past the trauma of his incarceration.1

The worst punishment is the Dementors Kiss, wherein a criminals soul is sucked out through his or her mouth. This sentence seems to be awarded with no due legal process. Sirius, for instance, originally given a life sentence in Azkaban, is slapped with the Dementors Kiss midway through Prisoner, with no reportage on how this deliberation was arrived at.

The wizarding society also tries beastsin its court, and when they are found guilty of crimes, awards the death penalty, as in the case of Buckbeak the Hippogriff.

2. The Problems

General problems within the legal system

The very structure of the wizarding legal process opens it up to all kinds of problems. These come in many forms, including, but not limited to, the ‘big brother’ like role the government plays in citizens’ lives. In Deathly Hallows, we finally learn that every wizarding child under the age of seventeen has a ‘trace’ placed on them, that tracks them and alerts officials to their performance of magic. In a world where this sort of invasion of privacy is condoned, even actively encouraged, there is little hope of the citizenry resisting or even being alert to the overriding of basic rights like anonymity, accountability from government officials, or transparent legal processes.

Functioning of the Law enforcement agencies

The wizarding police (Aurors) do not appear to require something as basic as a warrant to place an individual under arrest. Instead, enforcers turn up, drag the accused to court, or prison, and seem to wait until events either prove or disprove their guilt.

Issue of privacy

To add to this, the wizarding world is in itself so small that everyone seems to know or have heard of everyone else. An overwhelming majority of the citizens have attended the same schoolHogwartsand a great deal of character judgment is implicit in the House system that divides students in their first year. Tags like Slytherinand Gryffindorfollow citizens into their adult lives, as Hagrid demonstrates right from Philosophers Stone: There wasnt a witch or wizard who went bad who wasnt from Slytherin.

Embedded Bias

Apart from House tags and there character associations they conjure, the size of the wizarding population ensures that most of the pureblood families are known to each other, and their histories are an open book. This leads to, once again, bias in judgments, as in the case of both Hagrid and Sirius Black.


Four Cases and a Manifestation of the Challenges

In this section, I will illustrate how these weaknesses and prejudices influence the functioning of the legal system in the Potterverse, and the results of the same on the society as a whole. The cases I will take into consideration are Hagrid, Sirius, Harry and Barty Crouch Jr.

On procedural impropriety and denial of compensation

Hagrids expulsion from Hogwarts, as we find out in Chamber of Secrets, took place on unfounded grounds. What is worse is that when attacks start up again in the school, he is taken into preventive custody by the Minister of Magic himself and sent off to Azkaban. This is done purely on the (wrongly held) notion that he had been responsible earlier. There is no summoning, no hearing, no investigation at allthe Minister and Lucius Malfoy simply turn up one night and escort Hagrid off the premises.

Though Harry reflects that he, Ron and Hermione had been responsible for clearing Hagrids nameat the end of Chamber of Secrets, we dont hear of Hagrid receiving any restitution or even a formal apology for the trauma that he went through. Is he allowed to attend school and finish his education later? We never find out. Does the government apologise to him for its glaring mistakes? Again, we do not know. But Hagrids case does illustrate one thing: once you are marked, on whatever grounds, you can and will be answerable to the worst face of the law.

On facilitating mob justice

Another innocent individual, Sirius Black is thrown into Azkaban for life as a high-security inmate without a trial. Caught the day after Voldemorts downfall, Siriuss arrest is a cause for celebration in the community, and his quick sentencing no doubt a result of two things:

– A desire to tie up all the loose endsassociated with the Dark Lord.

Siriuss family history tells against him. The Blacks by this point are known to have had at least two members in Voldemorts campBellatrix and Regulusand are known to be anti-Muggle, pro-pureblood members of wizarding society. As a member of that family, Sirius is automatically under suspicion.

– Sirius’ own actions as a student

Siriuss character has also come under question earlier on, during his school days. Dumbledore admits that he himself gave evidence, stating that Sirius had been the PottersSecret Keeper. No doubt, he might have remembered the incident where Sirius led Snape to the werewolf in the Shrieking Shack. As Snape states in Prisoner of Azkaban, Sirius Black proved he was capable of murder at the age of sixteen. With such details available to the jury and corroborated by a figure as venerated as Dumbledore, Siriuss warrant was signed and sealed the moment the Aurors found him on that street in London. His family and personal history tell against him to such an extent as to deny him even the mockery of a trial.

On challenging elite capture

In Order of the Phoenix, Harry performs illegal, unsupervised magic before a Muggle (his cousin Dudley). He gets served a hearing by the Ministry of Magic and is suspended from Hogwarts, pending the outcome. Instead of a simple hearing as he expects, however, Harry gets landed will a full-blown criminal trial where he is subjected to interrogation by none other than Cornelius Fudge, the Minister for Magic himself.

It is clear that Fudge dislikes Harry and is annoyed by him, given the nature of his questions and his cutting across all of Harrys replies. Even though he is an underage wizard, Harry is denied any sort of legal support or adult counsel, and is expected to somehow wing his way through the trial with no idea of how to manage. It is lucky for him that Dumbledore shows up, which begs the question: do defendants not have to summon their own witnesses? Can some impartial, outside authority do it for them? This is the only trial where we actually see some sort of defence and Fudges very personal attacks on Harrys witnesses make it clear that if it werent for the Dumbledores reputation and persuasive skills Harrys trial might have had a very different outcome. It seems unlikely that, without Dumbledore to speak for him, many of the Wizengamot would have dared to go against the verdict Fudge so clearly desires.

A fair trial (funnily enough)

Finally, the only reasonably fair trial we see in the Potter series is that of the three Lestranges and Barty Crouch Jr. Presided over by the then Head of Magical Law Enforcement, Barty Crouch, the trial proceeds with the interrogation of the Death Eaters, and leads to their sentencing. The reader is led to believe that this is a fair trial, simply because Rowling makes sure we know that the four were in fact guilty of the crime they were accused of (ie, torturing the Longbottoms). However, again there is no process involving legal counsels. Instead, Crouch delivers his questions, receives answers and/or sobbing from the defendants, and then they are unanimously voted into Azkaban by the Wizengamot.

Through this trial Rowling highlights the broken nature. not of the legal system, but that of the families whose lives are ruined by it. Crouchs dedication to eradicating Dark wizards, it is hinted, is what led him to ignore the growing delinquency and wrong choices his own son was making. So, strangely enough, though this trial is presented as a legally sound one, perhaps the only such example in the books (even Karkaroff, the only other rightfully convicted Death Eater, is let off in exchange for information), it is used to question a mans ethics and highlight the narrowness of privileging blind adherence to a cause (however legally sound) over love and family, the core themes of the series.



The wizarding society- its obvious- is no utopia. It has more than its fair share of corruption, broken systems, and endemic prejudices. Though Rowling hints in her post-series interviews that things are beginning to change, with people like Hermione taking up legal work and instituting reform within the government, not everything can be solved overnight. Bribery and nepotism still influence thingsthe greatest example is the Malfoysbeing absolved of war crimes and staying out of Azkaban, no doubt thanks to Harrys interference. Personal histories and prejudices will continue to play a role in the legal system so long as the population remains this small. The anonymity and impartiality that drives a sound legal system will, for that reason, remain elusive in the Potterverse. But its things like this that prove Rowlings universe a well realised one: it isnt a utopia and, sadly enough, there are some things that even magic cant solve.

1 This could of course be explained by the fact that Sirius is not allowed the freedom he so desperately craves, and is instead locked back into another prisonhis childhood homefor his own safety. But even Harry is able to note that the effects of Grimmauld Place only compound the sort of claustrophobia and manic depression that was the result of Azkaban.