Married as a child and wrongly imprisoned for nearly 20 years over the murder of her husband in Pakistan, Rani Bibi is now free and fighting for compensation in a test case for thousands of other false convictions.
Bibi was only 13 when police arrested her for killing her husband whom she remembers “as a good man”.
Her parents and her brother were also arrested and jailed as they all were the last people to be seen with her husband when the couple was visiting her family’s home.
But his body – with a head injury from a blunt weapon – was found buried at his own residence some 25 miles away, according to court documents.
She spent the next 19 years toiling in prison for a crime she did not commit, cooking for hundreds of inmates and sweeping endless floors and groundkeeping in the scorching heat.
“I did hard labour,” Bibi, 35, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Midranjha village in Punjab province.
Bibi was sentenced to life in prison in 2001 – and then followed a series of errors that left her locked up.
A prison superintendent failed to file her appeal to the high court several times and Bibi was left without a state counsel to represent her and was unable to afford a private one.
It was only in 2014 that her appeal was taken up after a lawyer, who headed a local charity, met Bibi on a routine prison visit and fought for her release.
In 2017, the Lahore high court released her over a lack of evidence and apologised, saying she was “left to anguish in the jail solely due to (the) lacklustre attitude of the jail authorities”.
“This court feels helpless in compensating her,” the judge said in his order at the time.
But her release signalled the start of a new battle.
Pakistan is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – a treaty adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1966 that guarantees the right to compensation for victims of wrongful convictions.
But the South Asian country has not yet incorporated the terms into local laws.
Bibi and her lawyers are now determined to change that.
In March, the Foundation for Fundamental Rights (FFR), a legal advocacy group working for Bibi, filed a petition to demand the Punjab government pay compensation for the “miscarriage of justice”.
They also asked the government to create new legislation to act against wrongful convictions in Pakistan, where there are likely thousands of cases like Bibi’s, according to FFR.
In a 2019 report, the group highlighted that in 310 capital punishment cases heard by the Supreme Court between 2010 and 2018, nearly two in five prisoners on death row were wrongfully convicted.
While Bibi has not asked for any specific amount, she said she hoped the compensation would help her buy a new bed, blankets and linen, a washing machine, an iron and a stove.
“I didn’t know I could claim something or how much it should be but I hope they can just give me enough so I can buy things for my home,” she said. “I have nothing right now.”
Bibi has tried to rebuild her life after walking free. She found jobs as a domestic help and remarried four months ago.
But it has not been easy, said Bibi, who prefers to be referred to as Rani Tanveer, assuming her new husband’s name.
“I was better off in prison and … single. I’m a burden on everyone, my in-laws and even my husband,” she said, describing the jibes from her in-laws about her past and unpaid dowry.
When she was arrested, police also jailed her parents and her brother.
Her mother was released after six months but her father died of tuberculosis in prison. Her brother died of TB soon after he was released 15 years later, leaving no one to pay her dowry.
Bibi said she wanted to earn enough money so she could get “just a little respect”.
But for now arranging food every day was difficult after she and her husband, a daily wage labourer, lost their jobs amid the coronavirus lockdown, forcing them to move in with his family.
The lockdown has also put her court hearing on hold.
She reminisced about her childhood when “there was always plenty to eat” but added that her family had to sell all their property, including cows and poultry, to pay legal fees.
She said she used to be a mischievous girl with a quick, hearty laugh but nearly two decades in prison had made her into an angry woman with “a caustic tongue”.
“My mother says there’s a devil in me and I’m unable to control my rage. She wants to exorcise me,” she said.