Some 70% of prisoners in India's jails are still awaiting trials, or verdicts of trials long passed. In some cases the wait goes on for decades. For around 100,000 prisoners, the wait may end.
NEW DELHI — Vajai Kumari was five months pregnant when she was accused of murdering a neighbor in 1994, which she insists she didn't do and for which she says she was framed.
"I had some ancestral property in my name, and my in-laws had their greedy eyes on that," she says. "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 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 $200, and her appeal was never heard.
It wasn't until her son Kanhaiya was 19 and working that he earned the money to bail her out. "I missed her a lot and cried," he says. "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.
Mohammad Aamir, now 35, was just 18 when he was arrested in Delhi on terror charges.
All of his appeals for bail were denied, and he spent 14 years in jail waiting for a judge to rule on his case.
In the end, he was cleared 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," he says. "Before I left home my mother said, "Let's have dinner first," but I said, "Let's 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."
Not isolated incidents
The cases of Kumari and Aamir are hardly unique. More than 70% of people in India's jails are waiting for their trials to begin, or are still awaiting verdicts. In some cases, they have been locked up for decades.
Some 60% of arrests are unnecessary, says Usha Ramanathan, a professor at the New Delhi-based Indian Law Institute. "This is an official figure, not something that I'm pulling out of my hat," Ramanathan says. "And there are 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. Obviously, many prisoners and their relatives welcome the move, but Ramanathan says it's only happening because the jails are becoming so overcrowded.
"If we pause for a minute and think about it, 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," Ramanathan says. "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. 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.