BEED (INDIA), Aug 19 (Reuters / EP) –
Radha was just 13 years old when she had to testify in an open trial against the people who forced her to prostitute herself in India, when a lawyer bombarded her with questions like “why didn't you try to kill yourself? Or run away?” Frightened, Radha tried to answer, however, the judge intervened forcing the lawyer to end the interrogation.
“I was getting scared of the questions. I was trying to answer when the judge intervened,” Radha explains. “The judge told the lawyer that his questions were inappropriate, that I was a little girl. He told me to speak without fear. I felt better after that. I was no longer so scared.”
Victims of human trafficking in India have long faced similar situations, if their case reaches the courts. But Radha's case, which ended with a conviction and a 10-year prison sentence for the guilty, was unusual.
His case was tried by one of the first childhood-friendly courts in Beed, in the western state of Maharashtra, created as part of a campaign to reduce the trauma suffered by victims during trials.
The room is cozy, with sofas arranged in a square around a coffee table and a TV on the wall, with an adjoining room with brightly painted walls, toys, chocolates and a bed where victims can rest.
A series of orders issued by the Supreme Court of India, a directive from the Government of 2015 to facilitate the submission of complaints and a child protection law of 2012 have contributed to making the legal system more favorable to victims In this kind of situations.
Ravi Kant, spokesman for the New Delhi-based charity against Shakti Vahini, admits that there has been a “visible change” in the way the courts handle cases, although progress has been uneven. “Before, the victims were asked intimate details of what had happened,” he acknowledges.
In recent years, the courts have sentenced persons traffickers to life imprisonment, denied bail, recorded the testimonies of the victims in videoconferences and, in some cases, ordered that the victims be compensated even before the trial ended.
The courts of Hyderabad and New Delhi have made changes to the infrastructure to ensure that victims do not have to face defendants in court, while defense attorneys are not allowed to bother victims during interrogation.
In Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra, the courts that judge cases of sexual crimes against children now have a separate cubicle where the victim's testimony is recorded. The Law on the Protection of Children against Sexual Offenses in the country (POCSO) of 2012 guarantees to minors victims of this type of situations anonymity, a more sensitive hearing and provides for a more severe punishment for criminals.
THESE JUDGMENTS ARE STILL EXCEPTION
However, Radha's case remains an exception. Only one in four trafficking cases in India ends up in conviction and trials can last for years, so victims often withdraw their complaints after being intimidated by traffickers.
Although there have been notable changes in the treatment of cases of child victims of trafficking, the treatment of adult victims is inconsistent. Many of these cases are treated by ordinary courts, although this could change.
A draft anti-trafficking law currently in Parliament includes a provision so that the special courts of each district can handle cases quickly.
For now, lawyer Debashish Tandon has explained that victims are still at risk of meeting their alleged traffickers in court.
Tandon, who works in the eastern city of Calcutta, spent a year gaining the trust of a young victim of trafficking. He persuaded her to share the details of the abuses she and other victims suffered, including the death of a girl she witnessed.
“The victim was my main witness,” explains Tandon, who was seeking the death penalty for the trafficker. “But on the day of his testimony, he saw the defendant in court. He broke.” Facing the defendant face-to-face “changes everything,” says Tandon, who won the case despite the difficulties. The trafficker was sentenced and sentenced to life imprisonment.
FINANCING TO ESTABLISH ADDITIONAL COURTS
In 2015, India allocated almost Rs 100,000 million (1,307 million euros) to create additional courts and make existing ones easier for litigants to use. However, it is unknown how much of the subsidized has been spent so far.
For example, Maharashtra did not start spending its funds until 2017, when it began using them to redesign some courtrooms and make twelve fast-track courts functional. However, he used less than half of his annual allowance in 2017, spending only one third in the following year, and remains far from his goal of improving 453 judicial complexes throughout the state.
“We are quick to create specific categories of crimes in the law, but we are not creating an adequate judicial infrastructure,” lamented Girja Shankar Bajpai, director of the Center for Criminology and Victimology at the National Law University of the country. “The victim blames, the callous language of lawyers is still rampant,” he added.
The lawyers say that when changes have been made, the investment has paid off and the number of convictions has increased, although, once again, no updated national data are available. In Beed, conviction rates have doubled to about 60 percent after reforms imposed by the court, said Prachi Kulkarni, chief judge of the Beed court.
“We were the first in Maharashtra to make the changes, after New Delhi,” Kulkarni acknowledges proudly. It is a surprising achievement for an area impoverished by the scarce rains that have forced the inhabitants of some villages to walk miles in search of water and, in many cases, to emigrate in search of work.
That was not an option for Radha's disabled mother, so she took her daughter to the city's clothing stores to find a job. Seeing them, a woman offered them Rs 5,000, warning them that it was an advance payment for a job that required the girl to go with her. A month later, Radha was rescued from a brothel in a police raid.
Prosecutor Manjusha Darande has confirmed that the case against her traffickers was irrefutable. However, Radha has not received any advice after her rescue, and was taken to the police station to give her statement, contrary to the official guidance that victims should be allowed to do so at home, she has criticized the judge of the cause, Nazia Sadiq Shaikh.
He was not even informed of the outcome of his case until two weeks later, and no request for compensation from the Government for his terrible experience has been submitted.
Instead, a few months after his rescue, Radha married a man who doubled his age and had a three-year-old son he has to take care of. “She was afraid she would be a victim of human trafficking again. Now she is happy in her marriage. We have kept her past away from them,” her mother celebrates, while Radha looked at her in silence.