"FARAH JAMA USED HIS DYING DAD AS RAPE ALIBI."
"A rapist who claimed he was praying by his critically-ill father's bedside when his victim was attacked has been jailed."
That heading and sub-heading are designed to engender a reaction: What a bastard, to invoke his dying father in his deceitful alibi to cover his nefarious deeds.
But what if it later turns out that the "rapist" is in fact innocent? And if his alibi was in fact true?
Today a young man named Farah Jama walked free from jail after being acquitted of a rape for which he had already served 16 months of a 6 year sentence. The Victorian Court of Appeal found that the DNA sample (which seems to have been the only evidence used to convict Jama) was possibly contaminated and could not be considered proof beyond reasonable doubt of guilt. Prosecutors went to the Court this morning to have the conviction overturned after they admitted a “substantial miscarriage of justice” had occurred in his case - they were not even sure if a crime had been committed.
What interests me about this case is people's perceptions. How the alibis given by Jama that would prove his innocence were used as evidence of his deceitfulness and lack of remorse. And how that finding of guilty was used to justify racial and religious prejudices - Jama is a Muslim and of African background (Somali, to be exact.)
Now, I'm not saying Jama is definitely innocent. There are many cases of rape perpetrators going free because insufficient evidence, and it is quite possible that he actually did do it. But having now been found not guilty, we must presume his innocence. And looking at the details of the case, it was shaky to begin with.
From everything I have read about the case in the media, the facts appear to be as follows: In 2006, a woman in her 40s was found lapsing in and out of consciousness in the bathroom at an over-28s nightspot in Doncaster (in Melbourne's north-east). There seemed to be evidence of sexual activity, but she had no recollection of what had taken place.
DNA was collected at the scene, which eventually led the police to Farah Jama. Jama claimed he had never been to the nightclub, and on the night in question he was at home with his seriously ill father, reading the Qur'an by his bedside. His story never changed, and his family supported his alibi, and testified in court. No one had seen him at the club. Nonetheless, according to the police's DNA evidence, he was there, and had raped the woman.
Of course, as described in The Australian, complications have since come to light:
The only evidence police had was the DNA sample of Mr Jama, which was coincidently taken 24 hours before the alleged crime after he was investigated over another unrelated matter but not charged. Prosecutors told the court this morning that it had since been discovered that the same forensic medical officer who took the first DNA sample of Mr Jama had coincidently taken the DNA sample from the 40-year-old rape complainant 24 hours later. They said it had emerged that the officer had not adhered to strict procedure when taking the sample and therefore they could not “exclude the possibility” of contamination.
But at the time, the DNA evidence was taken as gospel. So despite his alibi, backed by his family, and despite the strangeness of a 19-year-old student being placed at a club night restricted to over-28s, he was found guilty. The judge in the original case said that the alibi provided by the family was "very unsatisfactory" and he was "guarded about Jama's chances of rehabilitation despite his youth because he had shown no remorse".
Of course, if the DNA evidence was wrong and he was innocent, it stands to reason that he would show no remorse, right?
It is unclear why the judge and jury found the evidence given by his family to be unsatisfactory. And I wonder, had it been a white Australian family, whether it would have been received any differently. Because without the DNA evidence, there does not seem to be anything to suggest he was even there, let alone committing a rape. So given that all the other evidence should perhaps have exonerated him at the initial trial, how much did Jama's background - African and a Muslim - play into any prejudices the jury may have had in determining his guilt?
There are two stereotypes at play here. One is of Muslim deceitfulness - the perception that Muslims are shifty and not to be trusted. Was this why the jury had so little regard for the testimony of the Jama family's regarding Farah's whereabouts? Also, the idea of a young man spending most of the night praying and reading the Qur'an (instead of going to a nightclub) seems like bullsh*t to the irreligious mindset of many Australians; yet for a Muslim this would not be seen as strange.
The second stereotype is the perception that young Muslim men have a higher tendency to commit rape. This is particularly fuelled by news of the shocking rapes that were perpetrated by a Lebanese gang in Sydney a few years ago, as well as a number of incidents. Are Muslims more likely to commit rape than non-Muslims? I have no idea, but from my experience of working with young men, I have certainly come across a lot of young men of Middle Eastern and African background with worrying attitudes towards women. These views certainly do not mean they are going to rape anybody (and they are certainly found amongst other ethnicities as well), but misogynistic views do make rape more likely.
Of course, a stereotype of what SOME young Muslim men may do is irrelevant as to what ONE young Muslim man - Farah Jama - may have done. But did this perception influence judge and jury? Perhaps, perhaps not. Had I been on the jury, in all honesty I can't say for sure that it wouldn't have influenced me.
Prejudices certainly informed some of the reactions around the extreme right-wing blogosphere to the sentencing last year. In case you didn't know, there are a host of blogs out there dedicated solely to pointing out what's wrong with non-whites. Here's a sample:
"Filthy Muslim vermin, raping a sick woman, what the hell is wrong with them?. Let the deportations start." - White nationalist Darrin Hodges at Australian Identity Forums.
"Muslim pig rapes woman in bathroom" - Winds of Babylon blog.
"Now you can pray and rape - simultaneously! Who says that Muslims didn't invent anything?" - Hodja's blog
"Google suggests that Farah Jama is an African name" - New South Wails blog (in an attempt to show an example of why we shouldn't let black people into this country.)
"HOO-RAH! Let's hope the next 4-6 years of this rapist life are spent being the rape-ee!" Commenter Jennyjen, on anti-Islamic blog Infidels are Cool.
So a crime that may never even have happened was used as evidence for the evils of Muslims and black people. The above comments are quite typical of the racist vultures that circle whenever someone who is not white is alleged to commit a crime in Australia. "Oh, the benefits of multiculturalism," they crow. Of course, in the numerous rape cases involving white Australian football players recently, you'll never hear those voices wondering if the rape happened because the footballers were white or Christian.
In any case, how much is religion (whether Christian, Muslim or whatever) relevant in a rape case, when those religions clearly forbid it? Someone who commits rape is obviously not particularly serious about following the rules of their faith.
Jama's acquittal will clearly force our justice system, and the media who report it, to ask some serious questions about the validity of placing so much faith in DNA evidence. But questions should also be asked about whether a trial's fairness can be compromised by anti-Muslim prejudice. Because let's be real - while the views listed on the blogs above are abhorrent, sadly they are not uncommon perceptions at all. You'll see them among the comments on the Herald-Sun website all the time (see here) - why not in the minds of a jury?
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