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Man who spent 20 years in jail released under wrongful conviction

My first 15 days in jail, sleep alluded me. I forced my body to work more intensely to bring on better sleep. I marked each day in prison on the wall of my cell, but eventually I gave up counting. It only made me more depressed. Thoughts of suicide filled my head as I lived this hellish life.

  • 2 weeks ago
  • May 6, 2024
8 min read
Vishnu served 20 years in jail for a false rape case that was eventually overturned with help from the National Human Rights Commission. | Photo courtesy of Vishnu Tiwari Vishnu served 20 years in jail for a false rape case that was eventually overturned with help from the National Human Rights Commission. | Photo courtesy of Vishnu Tiwari
Vishnu Tiwari
journalist’s notes
interview subject
Vishnu Tiwari, 43, was 23 years old when he was first arrested based on a complain filed by a woman, her husband, and father-in-law. He was accused of sexually assaulting, raping, and beating her when she was five months pregnant. He was booked for rape and atrocities under the SC/ST Act, which protects people in the lower caste system. Vishnu was sent to jail and after 20 years in prison, the Allahabad High Court deemed it a false case. Vishnu was released from Agra prison, a city in the Northern state of India, in 2021.
background informtaion
With over 5 million court cases pending in India’s district courts in various states, Allahabad High Court convicted Vishnu Tiwari, a farmer from Lalitpur, a village near Agra in a false case. Vishnu was arrested under the SC/ST Act in 2003. The SC/ST Act prevents the commission of offences and atrocities against the members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and provide Special Courts for the trial of such offences, as well as the relief and rehabilitation of the victims of such offences. Since 2003, several amendments have been made to the act to avoid false cases. Vishnu’s plea was filed by the Human Rights wing of Agra. Though Vishnu has been released, he has been denied any compensation by the court. The district collector announced a payment of land for farming and some money, however, he hasn’t been given anything yet.

LALITPUR, Uttar Pradesh ꟷ As I stepped out of the prison walls that held me for 20 years, the sky looked different than I remembered. The moment felt like it was a long time coming after spending two decades in Agra Central Jail for a crime I did not commit. My poverty and inability to manipulate the system kept me behind bars. 

Those who filed a case against me had all the resources. They lived free and happy. With my own newfound freedom, I felt clueless about how to start fresh. My walk to freedom delivered me to another type of prison: one society creates for ex-convicts like me.

Before my incarceration, I lived in the village of Silawan, a sleepy hamlet in Uttar Pradesh’s Lalitpur district in northern India. For 23 years, I enjoyed a healthy, young life while looking forward to a bright future. Today, so much has changed. 

[Vishnu was sent to jail and after 20 years in prison, the Allahabad High Court deemed it a false case. Vishnu was released from Agra prison, a city in the Northern state of India.]

Read more wrongful imprisonment stories at Orato World Media.

The false case that sent young man in India to prison

Working on my farm one ordinary day in 2001, I got into a fight with another man over some trivial land and animal issues. These things were normal in the village. However, this particular fight escalated so much, his entire family got involved. The man, alongside his wife, filed a false complaint against me for sexually assaulting, raping, and beating her while she was five months pregnant.

I never even spoke to his wife during our altercation. The man wanted money and took advantage of the the Harijan Act (SC/ST Act) which prevents offences and atrocities against members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. It also provides special courts for the trial of such offences. I belonged to an upper caste and the law in India worked against me.

Booked for rape and atrocities under the Harijan Act, I struggled to secure bail. After one year, they detained me again and I spent two years in undertrial. In 2003, a district trial court sentenced me to life in prison. I challenged the conviction by a trial court in 2005 but the court deemed my petition defective stating that I lacked the required documentation.

My first 15 days in jail, sleep alluded me. I forced my body to work more intensely to bring on better sleep. I marked each day in prison on the wall of my cell, but eventually I gave up counting. It only made me more depressed. Thoughts of suicide filled my head as I lived this hellish life. Though I prayed every day for hope and mental strength, I felt choked inside. At times, I screamed and cried but it made nothing better. I felt my soul dying a painful death. For 20 years, I died inside, bit by bit.

Adapting to daily life in prison and the death of loved ones

In time, my illiteracy forced me to make friends with inmates who could read and write letters for me. My brothers and father came to see me in jail, but my mother came only once. She broke down in tears seeing me through the tiny opening, wide enough to reveal only my face. Unable to bear it, she never returned.

After 20 years in prison, sadly, you lose people. At the age of 43, my father died of a heart attack. The same year, my mother passed away. Two of my brothers subsequently died from cardiac arrest. On the days they died, the system did not allow me to call home, nor could I attend their funerals. Pain coursed through me, not being able to see my dying parents’ faces one last time. I know my mother’s grief took her life prematurely.

My family’s finances also deteriorated over the years. Back in 2000, we owned seven buffaloes. My family sold them one by one to survive. They also sold our ancestral lands to foot my legal expenses, yielding no results for my release. Humiliated and mocked by society because of me, they lived a life of trauma, which I believe led to their demise.

In India’s prisons, if you have money you can afford to live comfortably, but I was broke, so I suffered. It cost an extra 20 rupees (24 cents) to buy vegetables, which I could not afford, so I ate the basic prison food. We dared not complain when it arrived undercooked. I understand incarcerated, convicted criminals do not enjoy luxuries, but I never committed a crime. Each day, I received two chapatis or pieces of bread and dal or lentils. Occasionally, during a special occasion, they gave me one extra vegetable.

National Human Rights Commission works for release of man wrongfully convicted of rape

In prison, I learned cooking and embroidery. These occupations kept me busy and allowed me to earn me some money. I lived the same routine for 16 years, until one day, I finally got good news. Thanks to the hard work of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the Allahabad High Court changed its judgment and acquitted me. The high court also noted that the medical evidence showed no signs of forcible intercourse. The court mentioned that the complainant had motive in a land dispute between the parties. 

The NHRC representatives visited me often in prison. They listened to my story and issued notices to the chief secretary and director general of police in Uttar Pradesh asking for a detailed report of the matter under Section 433 of the Indian Penal Code. That triggered the reopening of my case. According to Section 433, the government can commute sentences. They also sought details of the action against public servants responsible in the case and steps taken for my rehabilitation. Thankfully, the court expedited the hearings.

Despite working in prison all those years, I left with only 600 rupees ($7). I wondered how I would start life again at 43 years old with no education, skills, or family members. I returned to my village with the 600 rupees given to me by the superintendent of the jail as I exited the prison. The Human Rights officers helped me get a vehicle I could use to drive children to school.

After 20 years in prison, man’s life will never be the same

Leaving prison, I returned to a cacophony of mobile phones, the internet, and bustling markets, not just in my village but in the entire district. Before going to jail, I heard of cell phones but never saw or used one. We only had access to phone booths to make calls away from home. It seemed everything changed, including the lives of those close to me. The absence of my parents and brothers left a deep hole. With half my life over, I had little to look forward to. I got a phone to contact prospective employers and make a living.

Still, it took me a long time to make sense of this new world. One of my relatives arranged a marriage for me but within five days she ran away from the house. Once again, I felt all alone. I thought marriage and children would help me heal and cheer me up; that life would return to normal, but that did not happen. Today, I feel bored and upset, with nothing to do but drive my vehicle and return home broken. Meeting with people in the village, they only wanted to know about life in prison. Recalling those days saddened me more, so I stayed away.

Though I finally began to earn 3,000 rupees ($50) per month, I could not afford a house, so I built a hut using agave stems. I have no cook stove, so I use a mud stove I made myself. Before prison, I farmed, but without land, it remains elusive. I often wish to leave the village; to go somewhere far away where no one knows me and start my life over.

For that, I need a job. I would do anything to work and stay occupied, away from the village. I want to marry and start my life with someone. Though I hold onto some small hope, my patience runs thin. It hurts my heart to know the courts will never compensate me for the punishment I endured in a false case. I can never get back those precious years or my family. This is the reality I live now.

Translation Disclaimer

Translations provided by Orato World Media are intended to result in the end translated document being understandable in the end language. Although every effort is made to ensure our translations are accurate we cannot guarantee the translation will be without errors.

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