It is gingerly, and with a great deal of trepidation, that I write today’s post. I have been struck by the awfulness of Carl Sargeant’s death on Tuesday when it appears he took his life after having been accused of misbehaviour and having lost his government position. Now, I don’t have any great affection for politicians and did not know a great deal about Mr Sargeant before this event so why has his apparent suicide affected me ?
Firstly because it is a very obvious reminder of the terrible damage we are doing to our society and the rule of law by the ongoing hysteria in the media about sexual abuse and politicians. Clearly I would want to see any politician, of any hue, who abused any other person dealt with and punished appropriately. The promise of power and influence, that the world of politics offers, means that it will attract more than an average amount of psychopathic individuals. Therefore it is quite reasonable that we may find an above average number of people who are guilty acts of abuse in our governmental bodies. But, equally clearly, I only want guilty people punished and shamed. This distinction is one of the hallmarks of a civilised society where rules are just and punishment only justly applied when it is warranted.
One of the earliest legal treatises was the Mishneh Torah which was an attempt codify the bases of Jewish Law. In the early attempt to tease out guiding principles for a fair and just society the great philosopher Maimonides wrote :-
“It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.”
as he was aware that to do otherwise was the start of a slippery slope which lead to a lawless and unjust society where conviction, not being based on an adequate burden of proof, could lead to punishment on the basis of a whim of courts and rulers. This has also been referred to as Blackstone’s Formulation after he stated “All presumptive evidence of felony should be admitted cautiously; for the law holds it better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent party suffer“.
This principle should be considered alongside another, related legal principle, that is, the presumption of innocence. All legal systems hold this principle dear. Roman law states “ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat” (the burden of proof is on the one who declares, not on one who denies), and Islamic law, Common Law and the Civil Law all carry this basic tenet. As the public puts it “Innocent until proven guilty“. This is a principle that keeps you and I safe : we can only fall foul of the law, and be punished, if we are found guilty after trail not simply by accusation.
In the Carl Sargeant case he was treated as if her were guilty before he had a hearing. He lost his position and was treated by Carwyn Jones, The First Minister of Wales, as if the accusations were true. This is the habit, increasingly popular, of jumping to the conclusion that accusations are truth. It is this approach which underpins such campaigns as #IBelieveHer. Now it is understandable that we want to increase the justice for those who are victims of any form of abuse but this strategy is very dangerous. If we believe the accusers without question what is the need for a trial ? If we believe the accusers then the only thing missing is retribution. This leads us to a very dark place where people can be destroyed by malicious accusations.
This photograph, might explain my concerns about this. This is a group of Welsh special advisors out for the evening celebrating on the night that they had just started the ball rolling on the case against Carl Sargeant. These are the expressions just after they have opened the floodgates of innuendo and suspicion. A colleague and erstwhile friend has been thrown to the dogs and this photograph reveals their feelings that very evening. When accusation becomes proof, accusations become dangerous and powerful political weapons which some people seem to enjoy using.
This is not the only legal principle that was ignored in Carl Sargeant’s case. He was never given details of the accusations nor knowledge of who his accusers were. Again in English Law, Roman Law, and also the Sixth Amendment of the United States this is a ignoring a cornerstone of justice. In the Bible, when Paul was accused, it was described thus :-
“It is not the manner of the Romans to deliver any man up to die before the accused has met his accusers face-to-face, and has been given a chance to defend himself against the charges.”
If one does not know the accusations, nor your accuser, you are effectively denied the opportunity to defend yourself. If you can not defend yourself you cannot receive justice. It has long been known that ignoring this principle would lead to injustice and would facilitate terror. The oppressive, nightmarish qualities we try to explain when we use the term “Kafkaesque” , relate to being on trial but ignorant of your accusers and their claims as so well described nn Kafka’s novel Der Process (The Trial). Secret accusations, secret courts and clandestine meetings have always been the way of the power hungry who wish to subvert justice. In this particular case it seems that it has gone further than this as there were also meetings with the accusers when their stories were discussed with all the risks of contaminating evidence of any wrong doing. This is very reminiscent of the history of the Stasi, or the Gestapo, collecting accusations so that they might prove useful against political enemies in power struggles at a future date
Carl Sargeant did not know of what he was accused nor do we. We know that it could not have been sufficient to warrant police involvement. It is likely that it was behaviour that is deemed inappropriate in our present moral climate. He might have behaved in a manner more in tune with an older generation than the present. If this is the case then it is probable that a further legal principle is in the process of being ignored – we can only be tried for offences against the rules that applied at the time. Guilt can not be backdated. If tomorrow they pass a law outlawing drinking alcohol on Sundays, it is this principle which protects me against them coming and punishing me for last Sunday’s drinking. I am obliged to follow the law as it is just now, not as how it might be in the future. Without this principle we could all be facing punishment in the future for some act which is not a crime at present – did you spank your child ? Did you smoke in a public place ? etc etc. The same guideline should be used when we consider social mores and customs.
For all these reasons the story of Carl Sargeant is a sad and worrisome tale. He did not receive fair justice and now never can. We will never know the truth of these accusations as they can not be tested now that he has died, so justice will never be served. These principles are not minor bureaucratic foibles but are the foundations of our enlightened society. For the sake of all those black men lynched in the South in America, denied a trial and presumed guilty on the words of their accusers, we must fight for these principles. For the sake of all the women accused of witchcraft and killed never able to confront their accusers we need to remember how important these principles continue to be. For the sake of the very many women who are going to be accused of adultery, or other crimes in the middle east, and face death just on the basis of an accusers word we need to promote these ideas and promote civilisation.
Carl Sargeant worked hard for his community and tried to improve the world by his work in politics, I hope now that he can rest in peace. Hopefully his family will also find peace and perhaps, in time, they may see that his sad death contributed to a turning point when society turned its back on hysteria and witch hunting.