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The Scourge of Mob Violence – Need for a New Group Liability Paradigm

Kanishk Srinivas

I. Introduction

In 2017, a Muslim dairy farmer named Pehlu Khan, and his sons were stopped on the Delhi-Jaipur National Highway on the suspicion of smuggling cattle even though they had official permits for the same. They were beaten up by a mob of gaurakshaks (self-styled cow vigilantes) ultimately resulting in the death of Pehlu Khan. A video of Pehlu Khan being beaten up became viral on the Internet leading to a huge hue and cry. However, the Sessions Court held that the video was not permissible evidence, that Pehlu Khan had died of multiple causes and that his sons had not been able to accurately identify the perpetrators. Hence, the benefit of doubt was given to the six accused [1].

The above story illustrates two aspects – the gruesome nature of mob violence in India and the legal limitations in dealing with the same. In this paper, the author argues that given the limitations of the criminal justice system in dealing with abominable crimes like mob violence there is a need to reconfigure the provisions on group liability (Section 34 of IPC) and unlawful assembly (Section 141 of IPC).

Multiple suggestions[2] have been made about the need for a new law to address the crime but there exists a gap about what must be the components of that law. The author attempts to fill the gaps in this area and provide principled arguments for the same.

The paper is divided into four parts. First, the scope and meaning of mob violence in the context of the paper is laid out. Second, the author makes a case for reversing the burden of proof in mob violence cases., Third, the scope of responsibility and standard for ascertaining liability of peripheral actors, namely, instigators/abettors and passive onlookers is sought to be examined. Finally, the components of a comprehensive law which deals with the issue of mob violence have been laid down.

II. Understanding “Mob Violence”

Multiple terms have been used to connote the various forms of mob violence – lynching, unlawful assembly, and hate crimes. Lynching is the killing of a person by a mob.[3] An unlawful assembly is a gathering of 5 or more individuals who commit a series of criminal actions in line with their common intention.[4] Hate crimes are often motivated by the identity of the victim and are aimed at expressing the hatred of the majority community towards the minority.[5] However, the premise of “mob violence” remains the same throughout. Mob violence can be seen as an action/event where a group of people (2 or more) engage in concerted action to achieve their objectives or preserve their notion of social morality through sheer numbers and force. The ultimate aim of mob violence is to force an individual or smaller group to comply with the desires and aims of the larger group. It is a subversion of the legal system and inherent safeguards, given that groups of people discharge punishment based on their notions of justice without complying with a fair and reasonable procedure[6].

In this paper, the term “mob violence” is to be construed in the widest sense possible. It is not restricted to the instances of hate crimes and vigilantism that have come to dominate the public discourse. Any form of violence that involves a group of people acting against an individual(s) is to be understood as mob violence.

III. Reversing the Burden of Proof in Mob Violence cases

The essentials to be proved for establishing an instance of mob violence and the implications of such a proof can be interpreted from S.141 (Unlawful Assembly) and S.34 (Acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention – referred to as “group liability”) of IPC respectively.

Section 141 has three components-

1. 5 or more persons

2. Common object

3. Intention to commit a criminal act or omit to do a legal duty

S.34 provides the principle that is to be followed upon establishment of offences of the nature specified in S.141. Whenever the actions are done by a group in pursuance of a common intention, each one is liable for it as if she/he had committed the act alone making it an instance of vicarious liability in criminal cases.

Hence, the victim of mob violence has the burden of proving that all the accused who attacked them had a common object or intention. This is exceedingly cumbersome and inherently unjust for at least three reasons.

First, mob violence is often carried out by powerful and dominant sections of society to preserve their hegemony over power[7]. These dominant sections of society can range from dominant religious communities backed by supportive Central and State governments[8] and self-styled vigilante groups[9] that seek to uphold the supposed morality of the majority to politically and economically influential factions in a village[10]. In such an atmosphere of domination, with the balance of power heavily skewed against them, the victims are expected to prove that the accused committed unlawful acts in furtherance of a common object. It has been shown that police are also guilty of bias and dereliction of duty in such cases[11], failing to impartially conduct the investigation and record their findings. With societal pressure and state machinery working against them, the affected victim(s) or their family members are expected to prove the element of common intention among the accused, the nature of injuries caused and also find witnesses in a hostile social environment.

Second, in line with the social pressures and threats, there might be difficulty in securing the testimony of eyewitnesses and in general, securing evidence. This is clearly illustrated in the State of Maharashtra v Ramlal Devappa Rathod[12]case where the victim was dragged out of the house in which he had taken shelter and lynched to death with “sticks, axes, stones and swords” by a furious mob. The mob then proceeded to loot the house. Despite the presence of such a large crowd, the killing of a person, looting and all these events happening in broad daylight, eight family members of the victim themselves turned hostile and refused to support the prosecution’s case. However, the wife of the victim gave a convincing testimony which ultimately resulted in the conviction of a mere 9 out of 34 accused. Justice U U Lalit, himself noted that the incident meant that the “entire village stood against the deceased” and as a result, the “witnesses turned hostile one after the other”[13]. Other evidentiary concerns also abound with the police not recovering weapons used in the violence, allowing the accused an opportunity to argue for acquittal on the benefit of doubt[14].

Third, alongside the difficulty in gathering evidence and testimonies, the tests evolved by Courts for establishing offences under S.34 and 141 place a higher burden on the prosecution to demonstrate that the accused had a pre-arranged plan, there was a meeting of minds, prior concert[15] and all actions of the mob were in pursuit of this objective. This has only been qualified by saying that the plan may be formed on the spot itself. The impact of such tests is that the victim(s) or their family members are expected to trace the entire sequence of events that led to the incident and also prove the contribution of each accused to the crime. This is an entirely unfair burden given that eyewitnesses, let alone the victim, cannot be expected to give a precise account of the chain of events. Such tests imply that the prosecution is forced to go into proving the common intention and meeting of minds of a large mob alongside providing a blow-by-blow account of contributions made by each accused towards the common intention. This is further complicated by the Courts acquitting certain accused for not having the requisite common intention despite their involvement in the violence caused by the mob. This can be seen in two rather egregious acquittals on unacceptable grounds. First, in Masalti v State of UP[16]the SC held that three adults had to be acquitted since they had taken part in the mob violence due to pressure from their family and hence, they did not have common intention. Second, in Vijay Pandurang Thakre v State of Maharashtra, the Court held that though 30 members of a village faction had attacked another unarmed faction in the wee hours of the day resulting in the death of one person, there was no common intention since there were “no injuries on the vital parts” of the other victims.[17] According to the judges, the lack of such injuries was an indication of a lack of common intention on the part of the accused. The need for proving common intention creates a double burden since the injured parties are now expected to prove the concurrence of intention between all the members of the mob along with the nature of injuries inflicted by each member. In short, the affected party is now expected to provide a coherent account of the sequence of events, the identity of the individual accused, common intent of the mob and counter any rebuttals[18] (which are very frequent) about the contribution of the individual accused towards the common intention of the mob. While the burden has been somewhat reduced through the use of the constructive vicarious liability test[19], clear inferences of concerted violence drawn from the actions of the mob continue to be challenged by the accused as seen in Vijay Pandurang Thakre and Manjit Singh.

The evidentiary burden on the affected party was kept high by Masalti which seemed to uphold a mechanical test laid down by the Allahabad HC that at least four witnesses were required to confirm the participation of the accused in cases of mob violence. The rationale for this was that, in cases where a large number of individuals were involved in the commission of a single offence, there was a need for “two, three or more witnesses” who could give a “consistent account of the incident”. The Court, despite talking about “weighing” rather than “counting” witnesses and focussing on the coherence of testimonies, held that the HC’s mechanical test was “sometimes useful”. Subsequent judgements like Koteswara Rao v State of Andhra Pradesh[20]embraced the test and its rationale. The problem with such a test is quite evident – in a hostile social environment, against dominant forces, where witnesses (even family members) are prone to turning hostile, the Court mandates the prosecution to present four witnesses to confirm the participation of the accused in mob violence. While the rationale for this test is well taken, the implication of the same is that, practically, a conviction could never be obtained in mob violence cases.

The position in Masalti was somewhat nuanced by Ramlal Devappa Rathod[21]. This case essentially converted the requirement of four witnesses for proving the participation of individuals in mob violence into a requirement only for proving the participation of passive onlookers. If there are “specific allegations” and “overt actions” ascribed to a certain accused, then the prosecution can rely entirely on the testimony of one witness to convict that individual[22]. Only if the individual was not specifically mentioned by the witnesses will the need for 4 witnesses to confirm his participation come into play. There are two problems in this test. First, the need for “specific allegations” means that the witness must provide an extremely clear case of an individual accused’s actions during mob violence which is not a viable proposition as recognised in the rationale for the Masalti test. Second, this test results in limited scope for convictions since only a few individuals are known to and can be recognised by the witnesses. The test seems even more unjust when the victim of the violence (,assuming they survive,) who has focussed on surviving the attack is expected to recall the identities of individual assailants and the specific harms caused by them. The limitations of this test can be seen in the very case it was propounded in. A mere nine out of 34 people were identified and convicted due to the “specific allegations” of the sole witness (wife of the deceased victim). The other members of the mob, though identified, were given the benefit of doubt due to the absence of “specific allegations” and eight prosecution witnesses turning hostile. This test implies that it encourages individuals who use the anonymity that mobs provide to continue their abominable activities. Since the possibility of a conviction is severely limited as long as no “specific allegations” are made, it only incentivises the formation of larger mobs where individual assailants may be unidentifiable.

The above discussion shows that the provisions of criminal law and Indian jurisprudence on mob violence place an unfair burden on the victim of mob violence. Apart from the social burden and systemic pressures[23], the victim has an unjust burden of proof to discharge. This can be safely called a dual burden on the affected party.

Given that the unfairness of the status quo has been established, it is necessary to change the provisions of the law to facilitate the conviction of individuals who use the tool of mob violence to disrupt peace and establish a reign of terror[24]. It is in this regard that the author proposes reversing the burden of proof in mob violence cases – placing the burden of proving that either they were not part of the mob or that they lacked the common intention of the mob on the participants of mob violence.

This change solves most of the problems that arise out of the burden of proof being placed on the prosecution. It resolves the issue of social pressure and systemic harassment since the onus is now on the accused to gather witnesses and evidence to deny participation in the mob violence. There is prima facie acceptance of the harm caused to the victim ensuring that the person is not penalised (through acquittal of the accused) for being unable to recall the exact sequence in which they were attacked and the contribution of each assailant to the violence. This is also a more just and equitable outcome insofar as it asks the perpetrators of gruesome violence[25] that threatens the peace of society[26], has been considered a dent in the majesty of law[27], a usurpation of the State’s functions[28] and subjugation of constitutional morality to the majoritarian morality[29] to defend themselves instead of asking the affected parties and minority communities[30] (of which the former are often from) to prove their losses “beyond reasonable doubt”.

IV. The Peripheral Actors Conundrum

In this section, the author attempts to identify the standard of responsibility that lies on people who do not participate directly in mob violence – instigators/abettors and passive onlookers. In this regard, the word “peripheral” may be a misnomer in that these individuals are not peripheral in terms of their impact on the crime itself but only in the context of their direct involvement in the crime.

Instigator/Abettors’ Liability

Instigators’ liability is particularly important in the case of mob violence where leaders of dominant communities and political parties have often inflamed public sentiments through incendiary speeches. Studies have shown that in the Indian context, mob violence has become an institutionalised mechanism for achieving political support, and electoral gains[31] and imposing the morality of the majority on minorities[32]. There must be no compunction in stating while these individuals may be physically removed from the actual violence, they are the true source of societal strife and mob violence. There are broadly two ways in which the problem of instigators of mob violence can be remedied.

First, in dealing with such cases, the provisions of IPC related to “abetment” – Sections 107 to 109 of Chapter V – must be liberally interpreted. The essence of the offence of abetment is an attempt to synthesise the division of actus reus and mens rea among different individuals. There is a recognition that an individual while having the requisite mens rea for committing an offence may use other people to perform the actus reus. It is a such splitting of the elements of the crime to escape liability that abetment intends to remedy. Given the essence of abetment and the institutionalisation of mob violence[33] as a tool for achieving political goals, speeches, comments and actions (both physical and virtual) that attempt to inflame public passion and incite them to engage in violence must be heavily penalised. While it is an attractive proposition to say that there must be criminalisation of individuals exhorting the use of violence as a solution, the chilling effect of such a provision on the right to speech and expression under Article 19 must also be examined. Such a provision will be no different from the use of offences like sedition to criminalise dissent[34] and will open an entirely new can of worms. As a starting point, an ideal test that criminalises instigation of mob violence must take at least three factors into account – the wording of the instigation, the context and manner in which it is delivered and the proximate impact of such an instigation - while ensuring sufficient safeguards against impinging on the rights enumerated under Article 19.

While no concrete test can be laid down for ascertaining the abettors’ liability and a lot depends on the facts and circumstances, this must not take away from the need to come down heavily on such instigations when they are being made. Scholars have recognised the role of law enforcement authority in preventing small groups of people with the necessary resources from creating a violent mob[35]. Proactive measures by the police in preventing such instigations from being made, and hence, avoiding mob violence have also been recognised by the SC in the Tehseen Poonawalla judgement[36]. Police action in thwarting such threats may also solve the legal quandary involved in framing a test for criminalising hate speeches since the police are well versed with the ground reality and in ascertaining if particular statements, actions and signs may lead to a violent outburst. However, the perils of overly empowering an already partisan police[37] should not be overlooked.

Passive Onlookers’ Liability

Passive onlookers are individuals who were present in the vicinity of the mob violence but were neither part of the same nor had the common intention of the mob. The SC in Taijuddin v State of Assam[38]articulated the care to be taken to prevent innocent bystanders who gather at the time of mob violence from being falsely convicted. In this case, the question before the Court was whether an unarmed individual who revealed the hiding spot of the subsequent victim of mob violence upon being asked by the armed and angry mob could be considered a passive onlooker. The Court held that for a passive onlooker to be considered a part of the mob, she must have actively participated in the actions of the mob and shared their common intention at all crucial stages. This was to be ascertained through a perusal of surrounding facts and circumstances like “behaviour at or near the scene, the motive for the crime, the arms carried”. The author while agreeing with the test formulated by the Court advocates the inclusion of the factor that the participation may also be ascertained from actions, signs and words of the passive onlooker that express her acceptance of the actions of the mob and encourage the continuance of the same[39].

V. The Need for a New Law and its Components

The need for a new law is based on three considerations. First, the increasing incidence of mob violence[40], its use as a tool for achieving political goals[41], its detrimental impact on constitutional morality[42] through suppression of minorities and its sullying of the majesty of law[43] through mobocracy necessitate the creation of a new law that will comprehensively deal with this social evil. Second, the limitations in the current law in terms of the burden of proof (Section II) and liability of peripheral actors (Section III) need to be resolved and compiled for effective, just and speedy adjudication of mob violence cases – something the creation of new legislation can ensure. Third, scholars[44] as well as the Supreme Court[45] have recognised the need for a new law given the generality of the existing provisions and the limitations they create in deciding mob violence cases[46]. For instance, the provisions on group liability have been used in cases like Surendra Chauhan v State of MP[47]which deal with wilfully causing miscarriage, indicating their inability to cater to the exigencies and social implications of mob violence.

The new law, as a starting point, must have four components. First, it must have a comprehensive and inclusive definition of terms like “mob”, “violence”, “instigation”, and “lynching” to ensure that perpetrators of mob violence do not escape punishment due to the imprecise scope of these offences. Second, for the reasons mentioned in Section II, the burden of proof must be reversed and ultimately rest on the accused. Third, in line with the discussion in Section III, there must be a clear liability for peripheral actors who may prima facie be physically removed from the violence but still have a substantial and substantive role in it. Finally, the law must systematically reject common but unjust defences to liability in mob violence cases. The need to systematically deal with some of these defences comes from the fact that Indian courts have accepted some of these defences in particularly gruesome cases of mob violence resulting in gross miscarriages of justice. There are primarily two such defences that need to be explicitly outlawed by the proposed new law.

The first defence is one where the defence alleges loss or reduction in the individual agency or independent choice of the accused as a result of mob mentality. This is also known as the mob mentality defence. The defence counsel argue that the presence of a large mob deprived or denuded the individual of his sense of reasoning and independent choices. In India, this defence was accepted in Kishori v State of Delhi[48] - a case related to the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. A two-Judge bench of the SC observed that

It is common experience that when people congregate in crowds, normal defences are lowered so that the crowd instinct assaults on the sense of individuality or transcends one’s individual boundaries by offering a release from inhibitions from personal doubt and anxiety. ….. Experts in criminology often express that when there is a collective action, as in the case of a mob, there is a diminished individual responsibility unless there are special circumstances to indicate that a particular individual had acted with any predetermination such as by use of a weapon not normally found.”

The problem with the recognition of this defence is the assumptions and implications it entails about personal liability. The defence presumes that individual agency and the ability to make independent choices are impaired when a person becomes part of a mob. It fails to recognise that an individual has to make a conscious choice to join a mob initially before engaging in any of its activities. This initial decision to join the mob (despite knowing its true nature) and the liability arising out of the same is left unaddressed by this defence. Such a defence also means that there is effectively a reduction in personal liability upon acting as part of a mob. As opposed to the traditional approach of criminalising the offence of acting in concert along with the actual crime, the collaboration between multiple accused acts as a mitigating factor in this defence. This ultimately incentivises the commission of offences as part of a larger group to reduce personal liability[49].

The second defence that the proposed law must categorically reject is arguments about failure to prove the participation of the accused in the common intention of the mob based on extraneous considerations. This is known as the failure of proof defence. The problem here is not with the refutation of the connection with the common intention but about the facts and circumstances that are used to disprove the connection. For instance, in the Manjit Singh case[50], the HC had accepted the defence of two of the accused that their lack of weapons (while holding the victim so that the other armed members of the mob could attack) as indicating an absence of common intention. In the Vijay Pandurang Thakre case[51], held that the absence of serious injuries on the vital parts of victims indicated the absence of common intention among the members of the armed 30-member strong mob. To counter the problems that may occur due to the consideration of extraneous factors in ascertaining the common intention, emphasis must be placed only upon the defendant’s conduct during the incident[52]. Reliance on facts and circumstances must be tempered with questions about the proximity of the same with the incident.

VI. Conclusion

Given the social evil of mob violence, the difficulty in obtaining evidence against the accused and the high standard required by Indian courts for proving mob violence, the author advocates reversing the burden of proof in mob violence cases. The need for reversing the burden of proof, ascertaining the liability of peripheral actors like instigators and passive onlookers and countering problematic defences raised by mob violence accused necessitate the creation of a new law.

Despite the conclusions reached in this paper, multiple questions still have to be answered to provide a comprehensive solution to the problem of mob violence. Given the central role given to police in preventing incidents of mob violence, there is no clarity on the limitations of that power. Clear cases of overreach in controlling mobs have required the courts to step in[53]. A comprehensive amendment to the Prevention of Damage to Public Property[54] has been in the works but there is a lack of judicial clarity on how and by whom the loss of lives and property in the course of mob violence is to be compensated[55].

Legal solutions abound but ultimately, there is a need to mould public morality and bring it in line with the constitutional morality[56] of justice, equality and fraternity[57]. This is the permanent and enduring solution to the evil of mob violence.

[The author is a 3rd year student at NLSIU, Bangalore]

[1] Scroll Staff, ‘Pehlu Khan lynching: Rajasthan HC issues bailable warrant against six accused acquitted in the case’ Scroll (New Delhi, 7 September 2021) > accessed 1 November 2022 [2] Tehseen Poonawalla v UoI (2018) 9 SCC 501 (para 43). [3] Rawat A and Chaudhary D (Competing challenges of public morality to constitutional morality ...) <> accessed 1 November 2022

[4] Section 141 of Indian Penal Code (IPC) [5] Mohsin Alam Bhat, ‘Mob, Murder Motivation: The Emergence of Hate Crime Discourse in India’ (2020) 16(1) SLR accessed 1 November 2022 [6] Tehseen Poonawalla (n 2) para 24 [7] Mohsin Alam Bhat (n 5) [8] Ibid [9] Tehseen Poonawalla (paras 20, 24) [10] Vijay Pandurang Thakre v State of Maharashtra (2017) 4 SCC 377 [11] Arvind Verma, ‘Role of Police in containing Mob Violence’ (2012) 47(36) EPW pp 65-73 accessed 1 November 2022 [12] (2015) 15 SCC 77 [13] Ibid (para 18) [14] Manjit Singh v State of Punjab (2019) 8 SCC 529 [15] Gangadhar Chandra v State of WB (2022) 6 SCC 576 [16] (1964) 8 SCR 133 [17] (n 10) [18] This can be seen in the Manjit Singh case where two of the accused were empty handed but contributed to the violence by holding down the victim. Despite such clear participation in the mob violence, it was argued that they did not share the common intention of the mob and this contention was accepted and the benefit of doubt was given to them. [19] The test states that “A common object does not require a prior concert and a common meeting of minds before the attack. It is enough if each member of the unlawful assembly has the same object in view and their number is 5 or more and they act as an assembly to achieve that object. The “common object” of an assembly is to be ascertained from the acts and language of the members composing it and from a consideration of all the surrounding circumstances. It may be gathered from the course of conduct adopted by the members of the assembly. For determination of the common object of the unlawful assembly, the conduct of each member of the unlawful assembly, before and at the time of attack and thereafter, the motive for the crime, are some of the relevant considerations. What the common object of the unlawful assembly is at a particular stage of the incident is essentially a question of fact to be determined, keeping in view the nature of the assembly, the arms carried by the members and the behaviour of the members at or near the scene of the incident. It is not necessary under the law that in all cases of unlawful assembly, with an unlawful common object, the same must be translated into action or be successful…… But this concept of constructive liability must not be stretched so as to lead to false implication of innocent bystanders.” Forms of this test have been articulated and applied in Indrapal Singh v State of UP (2022) 4 SCC 63; Manjit Singh v State of Punjab (2019) 8 SCC 529; Sudip Kumar Sen v State of West Bengal (2016) 3 SCC 26; Sikandar Singh v State of Bihar (2010) 7 SCC 477 [20] (2012) 12 SCC 711 [21] (n 13) [22] Ibid (para 26) [23] Shamsuddin, ‘An Analysis of Mob Lynching cases in India with Special reference to Causes, Effects and Controlling Measures’ (2018) 26(1) Amity Law Journal [24] Tehseen (n 2) para 20 [25] Mohsin Alam Bhat (n 5) [26] Tehseen (n 2) para 17 [27] Shilpa Jain and Nikita Aggarwal, ‘Mob Lynching: A dent in the Majesty of Law’ (2018) PL(HR) <> accessed 1 November 2022 [28] Tehseen (n 2) para 1 [29] Rawat and Chaudhary (n 3) [30] Bhat (n 5); Murtaza Shibli, ‘Hindutva Vigilantism and Muslims: Institutionalization of Violence’ (2019) 16(1) Policy Perspectives accessed 1 November 2022 [31] Shibli (n 30) [32] Bhat (n 5) [33] Shibli (n 30) [34] Lara Jesani, ‘Attempts to stop misuse of sedition failed, it must go’ Times of India (12 May 2022) <> accessed 1 November 2022 [35] Arvind Verma (n 12) [36] Tehseen (n 2) paras 40.1 – 40.21 [37] Verma (n 12) [38] (2022) 1 SCC 395 [39] Lakshman Singh v State of Bihar (2021) 9 SCC 191 (para 17) [40] Ishan Gupta, ‘Mob Violence and Vigilantism in India’ (2019) 23(4) World Affairs: The Journal of International Issues pp 152-172 accessed 1 November 2022 [41] Bhat (n 5); Shibli (n 30) [42] Rawat and Chaudhary (n 3) [43] Poonawalla (n 2) para 1 [44] Gupta (n 40); Rawat and Chaudhary (n 3); Bhat (n 5); [45] Tehseen Poonawalla (n 2) para 43 [46] Rawat and Chaudhary (n 3) [47] (2000) 4 SCC 110 [48] (1999) 1 SCC 148 [49] Harvard Law Association, ‘Feasibility and Admissibility of Mob Mentality Defences’ (1995) 108(5) HLR pp 1111-1126 accessed 1 November 2022 [50] Manjit Singh (n 15) [51] (n 11) paras 20-21 [52] Harvard Law Association (n 49) [53] Anita Thakur v State of J&K (2016) 15 SCC 525 [54] 1984 (Act 3 of 1984) [55] Kodungallur Film Society v UoI (2018) 10 SCC 713 [56] Rawat and Chaudhary (n 3) [57] Gupta (n 40)

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