Innocent until proven guilty: The Right to a Fair Trial

Who gets sent to prison?

We have prisons to make sure that those who break the laws are punished, to prevent them from breaking more laws and to give them a place where they can learn to become law-abiding citizens.  It is also important as a deterrent; it shows other potential criminals what happens when you break the law.

So the answer seems simple enough: it’s criminals, of course. But who decides whether a person has committed a crime or not? How can we be sure that it was this person who committed the crime? Did the person have a choice – was he or she being forced or threatened to do something or were they acting in self-defence? Was it done deliberately or was it an accident? And how strict should the punishment be?

No one wants to live in a society without justice. The law is there to maintain justice – but how to ensure that the law is applied justly?

The right to a fair trial

Most societies aspire to the rule of law: that only the law - not individuals, institutions or even the government - can decide the rules of society, and that these laws are fair, clearly stated, and equal to everyone.

But for the law to work, it needs people and institutions to uphold it: the law is useless unless anyone enforces it, and the people and institutions who enforce the law treat everyone equally. This is why the right to a free and fair trial is a human right. Without fair trials, innocent people are convicted and the rule of law and faith in the justice system collapse – fair trials make societies safer and stronger.

"Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him." Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 6

This means that everyone who is accused of committing a crime is entitled to a fair and public hearing in front of independent judges. The only reason anyone can be sent to prison, is if it has been proven that they have broken the law – it does not matter whether the judges like this person or not, whether other people or the media thinks this person is guilty, or whether the government wants to put someone in jail because they are protesting against them.

In short: Everyone is innocent until they are proven guilty. No one can be sent to jail before a fair an independent court has proven that they have broken the law.

The right to a fair trial protects individuals from abuse and oppression, and is absolutely essential for one of one other fundamental human right: to the right to life and liberty.

Punishment without justice

Millions of trials happen around the world every day, and a lot of times innocent goes to prison for crimes they didn’t do. Unfair trials and miscarriages of justice are, sadly, all too common. Organisations like Amnesty International and Fair trial international have to help hundreds of people every year who have are facing risk of jail or worse without having their legal rights respected.

Sending people to jail without a fair trial is a grave human rights violation, but an even greater violation still is summary executions, when suspects are killed before they even get to see the inside of a courtroom.

A recent example of this comes from the Philippines, where over 7 000 suspected drug users and dealers have been killed since June 2016 without any judicial process (2 503 of these have been confirmed killed by the police). The president, Rodrigo Duterte, justifies these killings by saying that those who contribute to the country’s enormous drug problem deserve to die – but how can it be possible fairly assess guilt and appropriate punishment if the suspects are shot on sight? In this case, the victims have been assumed guilty and are being handed the worst punishment there is – death – without proof, without any way of defending themselves against the accusations, and without any concern for their fundamental human rights.

What can you do?

You don’t need a law degree to stand up for the right to a fair trial – there are numerous organisations and intitiatives you can support. One example is Freemuse, founded by Ole Reitov, an organization that works for artistic freedom and the rights of artists that have been imprisoned unjustly. Another one is Fair Trials International: a unique human rights charity that helps people facing criminal charges all over the world to protect this basic right and campaigns for fairer criminal justice systems.

Truth and justice is something we all want and everyone needs – so raise your voice, speak up, and campaign for the right to a fair trial for everyone.

Activity (11-13): Who goes to jail?


Equality and human rights commission. Protects your right to a fair trial.

Human Rights Watch: Deadly Milestone in Philippines’ Abusive ‘Drug War’.

Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (2000). WHAT IS A FAIR TRIAL? A Basic Guide to Legal Standards and Practice.

Iceland Human rights Center. What is the right to a fair trial?

Freemuse (2012). Musicians demonstration met with violence and arrests.

Defending the human right to a fair trial. Latest cases.

Amnesty international. Detention and imprisonment.