The Supreme Court’s recent notification to verify wrongful conviction of those caught with SP+ but were charged for SP is progressive, even if the issue is of the Court’s making.

On July 26, the Court let off 554 people detained and charged for possessing and trafficking of SP+ by allowing them to pay monetary compensation in lieu of prison terms. Besides it raising concerns on the court legislating and breaching the Penal Code, the judgment also saw the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) receiving reports from family members contesting that their relatives were wrongly charged for SP while they were arrested with SP+.

The notification it issued recently gives the benefit of the doubt to those who were initially convicted beyond reasonable doubt when SP+ cases were investigated and prosecuted as SP cases.

With the burden of proof on the police and the OAG, it becomes important to review the cases that were considered closed. For one, it assesses police’s efficiency in record keeping for the review involves going through the seizure list it maintained when an individual was arrested with controlled substances.

Even if the seized drugs are photographed as evidence, it has been learnt that the seized drugs are stored together after the photographs are taken. This is likely to create confusion over who was caught with which substance. The verification process would also involve reviewing the court hearings to vet if the defendants at any time had stated SP+ in there statements.

While the drug test results may help in the review process, some point out that the police may not have been equipped with the drug testing kits then.  Even if there were kits, it is still argued that a negative result of tramadol, which SP+ contains, is not conclusive enough to say that it is not SP+. Perhaps, that was one of the reasons why the 554 were asked to pay thrimthue.

But even as questions remain on what the objective of law is – whether to prevent people from abusing drugs or to prevent wrongful convictions or both or if one could come at the cost of the other, the review must be done.

However, the Bhutan Narcotics Control Authority, which is now empowered to update the list of banned controlled substances, has destroyed all physical evidences in February this year. This may prove challenging in giving the benefit of the doubt under the Supreme Court notification.

It may be an arduous process but since it involves lives, our authorities must help ascertain the claims made by the family members. It is hoped that this process would also streamline record keeping and maintain the standards of law enforcement. The Supreme Court’s notification is a good start.