The Latin phrase ‘nil nisi bonum’ comes from the famous quote “De mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est” (of the dead let nothing but good be said) attributed to Chilon of Sparta (6 the century BC), one of Seven Sages of Greece. In English, it is loosely translated as “speak no evil of the dead” and has served as the guiding principles to the masters of jurisprudence for many centuries.
The exceptions to the unwritten rule have been scarce. In 897 AD in what was called ‘the Cadaver Synod’, the remains of Pope Formosus, who was the head of the Catholic Church from 891 to 896 and whose brief reign as the pontiff was troubled, were exhumed and put on trial. He was found guilty, his edicts were annulled and his robes were taken away. As punishment, three fingers of his right hand were severed and his body was flung into the Tiber river. The Catholic church banned the practice of prosecuting the dead centuries ago. And in modern jurisprudence prosecution of the dead is unheard of.
Digressing from this, the Bombay high court in a recent judgment has ruled that death should not offer any redemption to a person accused of corruption. “Courts cannot be swayed by sympathy, emotions or moral approach when in facts and circumstances of the case no benefit of doubt can be granted (to an accused),”said justice AP Bhangale while delivering the justice.
The case in point concerned one Balim Ghodki of Nagpur, an industrial supervisor with the Khadi Gram Udyog Bank, who was caught red-handed in 1988 while accepting a bribe of Rs 50 to sanction a loan of Rs 25,000. Convicted by a sessions court a year later, he was sentenced to a six months’ jail term. Ghodki appealed against the verdict but died during pendency. In 2001, Ghodki's wife and five daughters moved the court and urged to give him the benefit of doubt and clear his name so that they could avail of his employment benefits. Although Ghodki's family cited a 2005 supreme court ruling wherein a deceased accused was acquitted giving him "benefit of doubt", the court said no to this. “Wrong acquittal will send a wrong signal to the society as corruption if proved, does not deserve leniency or sympathy,” justice Bhangale said.
While it is true that corruption has emerged as the severest of the evils to have been striking at our very roots, is it large enough to force us to change our age-old parameters? The custom in the army is an example worth quoting. An enemy soldier if caught alive in a war is subject to unspeakable torture followed by a trial that guarantees no amnesty. But should he go down while fighting, his body is to be treated with as much dignity as a brother soldier deserves.
Ghodki’s case touches upon another long-lasting debate: if the son pays for his father’s crime. Going by jurisprudence again, he does not. But a natural fall-out of the verdict in Ghodki’s case will be the opposite. His daughters will be denied the benefit of employment. The Bombay high court ruled that it should not be swayed by emotions, a position tenable under provisions of law but certainly not the established rule. While Lady Justice is blindfolded, the one who wields her gavel has eyes, ears and above all discretion is certain matters. And didn’t the Bard of Avon write:
“And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.”
But then the playwright was no jurist and was as much given to occasional bouts of sentimentality as the sage Chilon of Sparta from whom did it all start. As the legend has it, Chilon died of joy when his son gained the prize for boxing at the 56th Olympic games.
The prosecution of those driven by emotions thus rests.