Last updated: 29 march, 2010 - 13:55 GMT

Crime and Punishment

The writ of habeas corpus

Demonstrators dressed as Guantanamo Bay prisoners

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Habeas corpus evolved to prevent imprisonment from being used for personal revenge, spite, or abuse of power.

It establishes an essential human right. Someone in authority must give a proper legal reason for an arrest; if there is no legal basis for detention, the prisoner must be released.

There are no grey areas. It is one of the core aspects that make a country free.

How does it feel to lose one’s right to habeas corpus and be imprisoned without charge or right to trial?

Jack Mapanie, a poet and linguist once resident in Malawi, was imprisoned for almost four years without charge.

His testimony draws parallels with the Franz Kafka novel ‘The Trial’ which captures the fear and helplessness of internment without trial.

Frances Fyfield also talks to leading historian Professor Paul Halliday of the University of Virginia, a world authority on the history of the writ of habeas corpus, about how it has been used over the centuries.

It has alleviated the lot of press-gang sailors, slaves, so called lunatics imprisoned by relatives and even children.

It is also a catalyst of a law leading to other laws and has been wielded by ordinary individuals as well as campaigners, such as Shami Chakrabarti, Director of human rights organization click Liberty.

Habeas corpus is a way for everyone to assert the moral ends they want their country's laws to pursue.

First broadcast on BBC World Service on 29 March, 2010.

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