By Fabian Badejo
PHILIPSBURG, St. Maarten – Just recently, my daughter told me, “on St. Martin, you are guilty until proven innocent and even then, you still remain guilty.” Her statement jolted my memory and then it came back to me: eight years ago, I had written an opinion piece titled: “Where there is smoke… Character assassination and the culture of suspicion.” At the time, I had absolutely no inkling that I would be roped in as a co-defendant in the ongoing case code-named “Colade,” which is yet to be heard in court. This is what I wrote then:
“It takes a lifetime of painstaking and consistent hard work, diligence, and dedication to build a career and a good name; it takes just one sentence of unsubstantiated suspicion to destroy one’s integrity and character. The much-publicized suspension of Regina Labega and Edward Dest of the St. Maarten Tourist Bureau is the latest in what has become an ongoing saga in which our leaders, our very best and brightest are chopped down, first in the court of public opinion, where they have no redress, and later in the court of law where they may or may not be exonerated. What is disturbing about this trend is what I choose to call the culture of suspicion which is based on the popular saying, “where there is smoke, there is fire.”
How can we, in the same breadth then claim that a suspect is innocent until proven guilty? By stating that where there is smoke, there must be fire, have we not already concluded that the suspect must have done something wrong? In so doing, the onus is now on the suspect to prove otherwise, rather than on the accuser to prove beyond any shadow of doubt, his/her accusations. This is turning the foundation and principles of justice and fair play on their head. Presumption of innocence is thrown out of the window when we declare that there is no smoke without fire. It grants the accuser the upper hand in that the accuser is presumed to be incapable of false accusations or to be infallible in his or her suspicion.
Contrary to our portrayal of justice as a blindfolded lady, justice is not blind, and often times it is not a lady, and does not act in a lady-like manner, either. We all know about kangaroo courts. We all know, too, that if the system decides to go after you, it will find any stick to beat you with. The pity is that the public generally does not see the system at work, but prefers to believe, indeed, that nobody is evil enough to crucify another human being without any reasonable cause. I believe the biblical example of Jesus Christ settles that argument. If He who is without sin could be put to death on false accusation, who are we mortals?
It is important for us to focus on some aspects of our judicial process. In a criminal procedure, if you are suspected of a crime, you are arrested, detained and brought before the judge of instruction who will determine if you have a case to answer and if you should continue in detention. Until you are actually convicted in a court of law, you are still presumed innocent, regardless of how long you spend in detention. However, the longer you are detained, the quicker the presumption of innocence evaporates. At any event, the crime(s) you are suspected of committing must be disclosed to you from the onset of the investigation.
We often focus on the way something is done because we are a people who show respect even to our enemies. There is an unwritten code which we honor when we have to perform unpalatable tasks involving certain caliber of people in our community. For example, you don’t slam the handcuffs on a father in front of his children, no matter what he may be accused of. Actions like this, however, are designed precisely to create that smoke and lead people to believe that there “must” be some fire somewhere. This is the kind of smear that cannot be removed with the best stain remover from the fabric of one’s integrity, no matter how innocent the suspect turns out to be. Is this fair? Is it just?
Such character assassination based on a culture of suspicion hurts even more when the victim is someone who has given his or her entire life and career to the service of the same community. What message are we sending to the rest of the population, especially the younger ones, when those who should ordinarily be given medals of merit for their unselfish service to society are hounded like petty criminals and their names dragged in the mud because of a suspicion of wrongdoing?
I will not delve into the case of the two highest-ranking officials of the St. Maarten Tourist Bureau in order not to contaminate an already poisoned atmosphere which raises too many questions than one can find answers to.”
Need I say more? It is clear that on St. Martin, the universal and time-honored tenet that one is innocent until proven guilty, smacks of a farce. And even when you’re proven innocent, the damage is already done, and you still cannot wash away that scarlet stain of guilt. Thank you, Ife.