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Pair walk free

Mere Naleba
Friday, May 31, 2013

THERE was only one thought on Roshni Devi's mind as she dressed in her prison cell yesterday morning.

It was that of her family.

After a quick prayer, Ms Devi was escorted to the courthouse in Suva where she and her husband, Abdul Ahmed Ali, appeared to hear the judgment following their appeal against a life imprisonment sentence handed to them by the High Court in Labasa in 2008.

They walked out smiling.

Ms Devi and her husband, charged and convicted of murder, had their sentence and conviction quashed by the Court of Appeal.

"We are so happy. We will now focus on our family," Mr Ali said.

"My family has been torn apart with our daughter now staying in an orphanage and our son living with relatives because of this.

"We can't wait to go and just start afresh with our lives."

Ms Devi and Mr Ali were accused of murdering a woman named Rukhmani from Nayaca settlement in Labasa in 2001.

The couple never lost hope after their first appeal was dismissed in 2008 and in 2010.

They appealed again through their Legal Aid counsel, Jeremaia Waqainabete, on five amended grounds.

Mr Ali was sentenced to life imprisonment and was eligible for parole after serving 17 years, while Ms Devi was jailed for life with no minimum term fixed.

They had both served almost five years of the sentence before their release yesterday.

"I kept praying and never lost hope. While I was in jail, I learned a lot of things," Mr Ali said.

Mr Ali, 54, was a taxidriver in Labasa while Ms Devi was a housewife. They both clearly remember when they were handed their sentences on October 17, 2008.

"I was crying and could not see my family who were at the courthouse that day. I am a Christian and it was through prayer that we are now free," Ms Devi said.

She said the offence committed on February 18, 2001, had taught them a harsh lesson, which they at first saw as a stumbling block.

"Although I now see it as a challenge, at first I was sad because I would be separated from my children and husband. Family members began pointing fingers at us.

"I come from a poor family and when this happened, my children and I were shunned by relatives and the community.

"I always believed that justice one day would prevail and I thank our God and our lawyer for allowing that to happen today," Ms Devi said.

She said it was when her children started visiting her and her husband, who was locked at the Nasinu Corrections Centre, that she decided to speak to him about appealing against their sentence again.

Mr Ali said he agreed.

"Just like my wife, I thought that our children would also forget us and move on with their lives. When we decided to appeal again, we were quite unsure but now I just can't wait to go back home to see my children and live the life of a free man."

Mr Ali said with the farming skills he acquired in prison, he would concentrate on tilling the land while his wife, now a seamstress, would focus on sewing and baking.

Ms Devi said: "Our lawyer just told us to remember what Jesus has done for us, and, yes, we are indeed grateful for that."

In his judgment, Justice Calanchini referred to the evidence by two prosecution witnesses on what allegedly transpired on the day that led to the death of Rukhmani.

In that evidence, which was relied on by the trial judge, it revealed that one of two prosecution witnesses was also an accomplice, and the other was Ms Devi's son, who was eight years old at the time.

Justice Calanchini said: "It is clear that this evidence would, on proper directions to the assessors, have been sufficient to support an opinion of guilty since it established that the appellants had by their actions caused the death of Rukhmani and had done so with intent to kill or cause grievous bodily harm.

"However, the appellants have submitted that the summing up by the learned trial judge was improper by failing to warn the assessors of the danger of reaching an opinion of guilty on the evidence of an accomplice without corroboration.

"It is quite apparent that the learned judge did not give any such warning to the assessors."

Justice Calanchini said it was submitted that that omission was fatal and that under those circumstances, the conviction must be quashed presumably on the basis that there had been a misdirection that constituted a "wrong decision on a question of law".

The couple will return to Labasa on Monday.

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