Vigilante Justice

The Times reported a case on home defence gone sour:

Munir Hussain, chairman of the Asian Business Council, was praised by a judge for his “courage” in defending his wife and three children from an attack — but then jailed for the violence of his response. One of his attackers was spared a jail sentence.

The incident occurred when the Hussain family returned from their mosque during Ramadan to find three intruders wearing balaclavas in their home. Hussain was told that he would be killed. His family’s hands were tied behind their backs and they were forced to crawl from room to room.Hussain, 53, made an escape after throwing a coffee table and enlisted his brother Tokeer, 35, in chasing the offenders down the street in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, bringing one of them to the ground.

What followed was described in Reading Crown Court as self-defence that went too far. Walid Salem, one of the intruders, suffered a permanent brain injury after he was struck with a cricket bat so hard that it broke into three pieces. Neighbours saw several men beating Salem with weapons, including a metal pole.

It has, quite understandably, provoked a lot of discussion on the laws around self-defence and taking the law into your own hands

This case, however, wasn’t strictly about self-defence. The burglary had already been stopped. The burglar was fleeing when he was chased by the defendants, pinned down and hit repeatedly. This relates to the second issue: the reason the burglar got such a light sentence is because his brain damage was so severe that he was seen as unfit to plead.

The law has to draw a distinction in these cases between trying to apprehend a criminal, and then meting out your own punishment. I don’t think anyone can really say with any certainty that they’d have acted any differently in those circumstances. Munir Hussein suffered an horrific ordeal. That appears to have factored into his relatively lenient sentence for an offence that carries a maximum of life imprisonment. You may even think that the burglar got what he deserved. But the problem is that these acts of vengeance, no matter how sympathetic we might be with the Hussains, need to be punished to protect the public.

To understand why, it’s easiest to ask a simple question:

What if it was a case of mistaken identity?

Suppose, for a minute, that the man the Hussain brothers caught, and reasonably believed was the burglar, was actually an innocent bystander, who just happened to look similar. Imagine for a moment that it was you or your relative that had been left with severe brain damage as a result. Would you be so sympathetic then? If you legalise vigilantism, which is the only real alternative in this case, the result is that innocent bystanders will no longer be protected by the law.

The criminal justice system is not just there to hand out punishments. It’s there to decide whether the defendant actually committed the crime. We don’t let people take the law into their own hands because they’re much more likely to make a mistake than the courts.

If you think that this case is a miscarriage of justice, imagine if you’d been wrongly identified and left brain damaged by these two.