Persia/Chapter 15

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It has been already observed, that the Persians have no idea of our law proceedings; they have therefore neither counsel, nor attorneys, nor that swarm of blood-suckers, who, under different denominations, intermeddle in Europe in every thing, and while they keep the oyster for themselves, leave the shell only for their clients. In Persia every man pleads his own case.

The first step towards what we should call bringing an action against a person, is to present a petition to the judge, who writes on the margin of it an order for bringing before him the party against whom complaint is made. One of his officers immediately puts this order in execution. It is custom for defendant pay this officer for his trouble by the way: for he has no other salary than what arises from fees of the kind, and even these he has to divide with his employer. The parties commonly appear together with their witnesses: both insist on being in the right; they warmly maintain their point; the altercation becomes violent, and they abuse one another in the grossest terms. When they are people of fortune or distinction, the judge stops his ears, and lets them bawl away: but if they belong to the lower classes, a few thumps on the head or back from his attendants allay the warmth of the dispute. The uproar is as twice as great, when the parties are of the female sex: for it is to be observed, that women personally defend themselves. They appear before the court covered with a veil, and remain in the small separate apartment already mentioned. The judge cannot impose silence on them, but viva voce; he must not have recourse to corporal punishment; and what power would the voice of ten judges have over that of an enraged woman?

For want of witnesses, the Koran is brought. The judge, after respectfully kissing and raising it to his forehead, presents it to the defendant, to do the same, and receives the oath of the latter on the open book. If the defendant swears, he gains his cause, as it is not to be supposed that the allurement of worldly and perishable lucre would induce a man to incur the punishment reserved for perjury in a future life.

When the defendant is summoned on account of debt, and he is unable to pay it, the Koran enjoins that a delay be allowed him: but if he has several times availed himself of this indulgence without fulfilling his engagements, or if he has betrayed in his conduct a want of integrity, he is delivered to his creditor, who has a right to do with him what he pleases, except maiming or putting him to death. He may then sell him as well as his wife, detain him prisoner, maltreat him, and beat him publicly in the streets of the town. The bankrupt, nevertheless, is favoured: as long as it can be proved that he is living, his creditors cannot obtain of the ecclesiastical magistrates authority to sell his effects and property; so that they are obliged to apply for the interference of the civil judge, who grants them the exercise of their rights.

Quarrels and assaults in the streets are usually punished with a fine and the bastinado. Whenever any disturbance takes place, an officer of the police rushes among the combatants, striking indiscriminately the aggressors, the persons assaulted and the lookers-on, who take to their heels. Such of them as he can secure he carries before the judge, driving them along and belabouring them with his staff. On reaching the tribunal, after the unfortunate creatures have suffered this ill-treatment, the judge very coolly inquires their names and professions. The sentence is usually followed by the infliction of the bastinado as well on the complainant as on the aggressor; and they are moreover obliged to pay a fine. As the money goes into the coffers of the judge, the fine is never remitted; but it is possible to avoid the beating and final bastinado. To this end the person in custody need only say to the officer, before they reach the court: "My good friend and brother, why should you thus seek to be the death of an innocent man? I have such a sum of money in my purse; take half of it for yourself, and give the other to the judge's porter, that I may not receive punishment." This address, accompanied with the gratuity, usually produces the innocence and the acquittal of the acused.

The slightest faults are severely punished in Perisa. The venality which prevails among the judges ensures, if not the administration of justice, at least the exercise of their functions. The repression of irregularities of every kind, is a source of revenue. The drunkard caught in a tavern, and the debauchee found in the house of ill fame, purchase impunity for their transgressions: murder and robbery alone are never pardoned, and no sum can save persons guilty of these crimes from punishment. When a man has been killed, his relatives run with loud cries to the residence of the judge, and demand the blood of the murderer, for whose apprehension the magistrate issues orders. If the murderer be opulent, a negotiation is opened. The judge proposes the requisite indemnification to the complainants, setting down a handsome sum for his own trouble as mediator; but if the relatives persist in demanding the murderer, the judge delivers him into their hands with these words: "I deliver up to you, agreeably to the law, the murderer of your kinsman; pay yourselves for the blood which he has spilled; but remember that God is generous and merciful." The officers then conduct the culprit to the spot directed by the relatives, and inflict on him such torments as they are directed by the relatives, unless the latter prefer glutting their rage on him themselves; but if the murderer, after enduring all their tortures and being left for dead by his executioners, should nevertheless recover, he is free both in regard to his liberty and his life, and the family of the person whom he killed has no right to persecute him any more. The rich and powerful man, who has imbrued his hand in the blood of an indigent fellow-creature, commonly expiates his guilt by a sum of money. The compromising mulct paid to the family of a murdered person, is usually rated at from fifty to one hundred toomauns; but if a Christian person happen by any evil chance to kill a Musulman, the sum commonly exacted is two hundred toomauns.

Criminal justice is administered by the civil magistrates, according to the ourf, or common law. There is neither public prison nor executioner: the only places of confinement are dark and filthy apartments in the houses of magistrates, whose servants perfom the office of executioners. There is no criminal court. The want of regular proceedings in so important a matter, seems to be an advantage to the Persians. Among them, house-breaking, assassination, and poisoning, were not long since crimes which might be said to be unknown. Murder was commonly committed either in a gust of passion or to revenge an injury; but there were none of those murderers by profession, of whom Europe exhibits but too many example. The rarity of the evil has inducted a neglect of the remedy: it has fared with these crimes as with those severe diseases for which medicine has no fixed rules—the operator in both is obliged to act according to circumstances.