Is judiciary soft on celebrities?

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“Does the law of the land work differently for celebrities?” a question that made rounds a couple of years ago, soon after the film star Salman Khan “hit-and-run” case verdict. The bail secured in no time, though the verdict itself took 13 long years to come by, it is still green.

In the ‘blackbuck case’, the thespian, not surprisingly embraced bail. By the star’s track-record, the bail process, this time, is relatively slow, and his supporters termed the judgement as “harsh” and called the “repeat offender” a “victim”.  Does 20-year judicial delay take away the crime?

For his supporters, a megastar can do no wrong, and even if s/he does, the gravity of the offence should be balanced with whatever charitable or humanitarian work s/he may have done, and the lenient course adopted! The level of inconsistency between sentencing for celebrities and average citizens is a major concern.

We idolise many of these celebrities to the point of disregarding some of their obvious shortcomings. This is not to say that they should be judged more harshly.  Some celebrities commit these crimes and become repeat offenders because we never hold them accountable for their actions.

When the rich and the powerful get on the wrong side of the law, it is the law that suffers the most. VIP offenders and convicts are often treated by law enforcers as VIPs and not offenders or convicts, and you usually just see them getting away with more crime.

Law loses, loopholes win

The purpose of incarceration is behavioural correction. If the legal system truly believes that their prison system works, why would it not sentence famous convicts more fairly? If a celebrity is convicted with, if say, drug charges, but is sentenced only to “rehabilitation”, then all drug users should be sentenced similarly, because the courts have indicated that rehabilitation is more effective than jail cell. Is it that when top celebrities are in trouble, it is never the individuals on trial but rather their titles and accolades?

The legal eagles exploit every loophole in the Indian criminal justice system to prolong the case, evidence lying in the perception of the judge.  Just because you did it, that does not mean you are a convict. When convicted, bail is ready like ambulance. The convict is then free for years while the case winds its way slowly through different courts as part of the appeal process. Those with money and influence in their arsenal install their proxies and escape judicial reach.

Remember, in the Jayalalitha case, John Michael D’Cunha, Special Judge who delivered the landmark decision had observed: “The accused moved applications after applications before this court at every stage of the proceedings raising different interlocutory issues purportedly to vindicate different facets of their right to a free and fair trial and virtually every order passed by this court was carried in Appeal or Revision to the Hon’ble High Court of Karnataka and then to the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India resulting in considerable delay in the progress of the case”.  Thus it took 18 years for a decision, only to be granted bail within 21 days.

In contrast, American criminal Charles Manson who committed a murder in 1969 is in jail and has been refused parole 11 times. Bernard Madoff, the infamous Ponzi scheme fraudster got 150 years imprisonment and a forfeiture of $17.7b.  Neither of these convicts will ever be released.

Affluenza, a disorder

Is it easier for people with money to navigate the criminal system than for people without?  Is ‘affluenza’ a real problem? Should a judge take it into account when making decisions about sentencing? Affluenza is not a real disorder; it’s merely parents not cautioning their kids of consequences, thus, compelling them not to make good choices. While many under-trials are languishing in jails, procedural bias impairs civil liberties.

Justice shall be just only when it is delivered with equity. While a celebrity like Sanjay Dutt spent half of his time on parole, a poor man from Assam was found spending 54 years in prison without trial for an offence punishable with not more than three years. There cannot be “classes” of offenders.

The term VIP itself is a slur on democratic values as it highlights someone more equal than others. With the high-profile cases on the rise, India is at the risk of being labeled as “Judicial asylum”.

Where power comes without prudence, goons will call the shots!

(The views expressed by the author in the article are his/her own.)