An Open Letter To The National Assembly
By Barrister William Ballantyne
Dear congressmen and Women,
Some of history’s most intriguing trials were essentially battles of ideas. Religious loyalty is pitted against loyalty to the State like in the case of Sir Thomas More The established Church tries to restrict freedom of thought in the case of Galileo. The State seek similar restrictions on freedom of expression in the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Racial, Religious, or Ideological prejudice lies at the heart of many landmark trials of ideas.
This Christian Court as advocated by you is almost a special Court. Historically, under the best Conditions a case tried by this kind of special Court enjoys the full protection of due process of the Law, and the verdict established a precedent for new legislation.
However many so-called Special Courts are scarcely Courts at all but rather a hoc tribunals conducted outside the normal rules of due process (Note the trial of Jesus of Nazareth by the Jewish Sanhedrin).
Typically they are set up to try high-profile political prisoners and intended to reach a preordained verdict, by fair means or foul. Such special Courts rarely have any authority beyond the crude principle that might is right. In the worst cases they bring charges that are inconsistent with the law of the land and impose severe and unprecedented punishments on their victims.
By their nature, Special Courts often make painful rulings on matters of religion, conscience and morality. In the case of Sir Thomas More, though his conviction for treason was questionable, the new law that attended the charges, requiring an ‘Oath of Allegiance’ was valid according to the terms set out by the English parliament. More defended his refusal to obey the new legislation on grounds that it contradicted the laws of God and the Catholic Church, of which he was a Minister, he could not be loyal to the king and God at the same time.
The question of who wielded ultimate authority was also the Central moral and legal problem in the trial of Charles I. If the Courts of English were the king’s Courts and the monarch was the fount of Justice and the object of all allegiance, how then could he commit treason against himself or be tried by his own Court? Most Church Courts or in whatever name you want to give to it, be it Christian Courts or otherwise are set up to defend the religious orthodoxy of a Specific Sect. ecclesiastical judges examine a prisoners view and rule on whether or not these views conform in a way acceptable to the Court.
The inquisitional system of Justice forms the basis of most ecclesiastical trials. The centuries of notorious abuse by the Holy office , an ecclesiastical Court established by the Catholic Church cast an undeserved shadow on an otherwise legitimate but outdated procedure.
The most important aspect of the inquisitional system is that it ascribed a far more active role to the decision makers in the trial – whether judge or Jury or a combination of the two. It is their task to discover what really happened. The trials of Joan of Arc and Galileo or even Jesus Christ-: were conducted entirely along inquisitional lines, these trials demonstrate the non-religious –in these cases, political –purposes such a system often served. The cruelties and successes with which the Catholic Court of the inquisition is particularly associated eventually led to that Court’s demise.
The primary purpose of the Court of the inquisition was the suppression of heresy and the punishment of heretics. The authority of the Catholic Church had to be protected, and heresy by definition challenged Church doctrines and teachings. The trial of Galileo for writing a book that supported the theory that the Earth revolved around the Sun and not vice versa, may seem Ludicrous today. Yet, scientific inquiry that challenged religious orthodoxy could not be tolerated in the climate of opinion at the time.
The Catholic Church held as religious doctrine that the Earth was at the Center of God’s Creation. To modern eyes, Galileo cuts an unimpressive figure, giving his inquisitors the Capitulation they wanted in return for a quiet and secure old age. But once released from the rigors of the Holy office, he expressed in words later echoed by Thomas Jefferson; the notion that Minds Created free by God should not be compelled to submit to the will of others.
In the case of Joan of Arc, Joan’s effective self –defense led the inquisition to threaten torture- a power sufficient to break all but the strongest will. After a heroic defense of her position, Joan recanted. Her subsequent attempt to reclaim her original position was fatal, leading to her death but now a Saint of the same Catholic Church.
Imagine in a country where Jungle Justice is prevalent and now you want to add inquisitional Justice which is totally alien to our adversarial judicial system. A legal system used in the common Law countries. This kind of thinking of the National Assembly shows a society in grips of Paranoia, in which accusation came to equal guilt. This inquisitional system is wholly alien to our culture.
In conclusion, let me clearly state the importance of History in our National Development. The History of the Court of inquisition otherwise known as the Church Court or as the proposed Christian Court by our honorable, will remind us of the period of history named the Dark Ages.
As the Roman Catholic Church extended its power across Europe, it became preoccupied with the prosecution of anyone who threatened its absolute authority. In 1231 Pope Gregory ix set up the Court of the inquisition to deal with dissent from official Church doctrine. Because the inquisitors never revealed the reasons why a defendant had fallen under suspicion and did not bring formal charges, there was no possibility of presenting a defense.
In addition, heresy trials did not
adhere to normal rule that a person was innocent until proven guilty. An accused heretic was assumed guilty until proven innocent, and torture was often used to obtain “confession” from those who stubbornly protested their innocence.
Cases of heresy were supervised by a Bishop or other Senior Cleric, who presided over a “court of assessors” – in this case clerics from nearby abbeys or from the university of Paris. These onlookers were entitled to come and go constantly and to put questions freely. The relentless pressure of their questioning, did much to wear down defendants and the additional threat of torture was enough to make most prisoners confess.
In the case of Joan of Arc, the English convinced a French ecclesiastical Court to try her for heresy and witchcraft. She was burned in Rouen in 1431. In 1920 Joan was canonized by the Church that had martyred her. During two world wars she became a heroic symbol to the French resistance and has sometimes been celebrated as the first martyr to die for the ideal of nationalism.
During the trial she said to her accuser Bishop Cauchon, “you are not the Church, you are only my enemy.”
I sincerely hope, our honorable do not want us to trade this path again. I highly recommend “The Age of Reason” by Thomas Paine. It is a must read book for our national assembly members.
William Ballantyne, Is a Historian and Principal Partner at City Solicitors, Lagos, Nigeria.