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Sexual assault survivor decries B.C. court decision to toss conviction over delays

Last Updated Feb 16, 2021 at 12:44 am PDT

(Courtesy Twitter/jeetipooni)

Eleven years after Jeeti Pooni reported the sexual abuse she suffered as a child, her abuser was convicted

Manjit Virk's conviction was thrown out due to court delays, a decision the B.C. Court of Appeal upheld on Feb. 10

Jeeti Pooni says the court's decision sends a chilling message to survivors who are considering reporting to police

SURREY (NEWS 1130) — A survivor of childhood sexual assault is “baffled and enraged” by a recent court decision that means the man who was convicted of abusing her won’t be sentenced for his crimes.

It has been 15 years since Jeeti Pooni decided to break her silence and tell her family that her cousin began raping her when she was 11. It’s been 10 years since the charges against Manjit Virk were approved. It’s been nearly three since he was found guilty of sexually assaulting Jeeti, her sister Salakshana, and their cousin, Rajinder Rana. All of the assaults were committed between 1980 and 1985, after 20-year-old Virk came to live with the Pooni family in Williams Lake. Virk was acquitted of two other charges related to a third Pooni sister.

A decision by the B.C. Court of Appeal on Feb. 10 upheld a decision to stay the proceedings against Virk because his Charter rights were violated by the protracted seven-year-long legal proceedings, effectively throwing out the conviction.

Jeeti read the decision at her home in Surrey last Wednesday morning when it was posted online.

“It was just a whole array of emotions. Anger obviously and upset. It’s just very disheartening and discouraging. One doesn’t know what more could one do, and there’s disbelief that the system is not able to hold a person who has been found guilty accountable by sentencing him,” she says.

“I’m baffled. It’s so confusing, it’s enraging. First, he’s allowed to have all these adjournments to delay, and then he’s allowed — after a guilty verdict — he’s allowed to file an application to have the case thrown out because his rights were breached. Well, what about our rights? As survivors, do we not have any rights? According to the system: No, we don’t.”

The 2016 Jordan decision at the Supreme Court of Canada set a national standard for how long a criminal prosecution is allowed to take. A provincial court case must conclude within 18 months, and a case in a superior court must be heard within 30. It is on those grounds that Virk’s conviction was stayed.

“Go over that 30-month mark, that’s it. The case will be tossed out. So which person who has been sexually assaulted would now come forward, knowing that this is how the justice system treats even a guilty verdict?” Jeeti asks.

‘A failure of the justice system’

The decision acknowledged the gravity of Virk’s crimes, and took issue with the outcome of the case.

“This is a troubling case. The charges were serious, involving sexual abuse of vulnerable complainants,” Madam Justice Fenlon wrote.

“A stay of proceedings in these circumstances marks a failure of the justice system.”

The decision goes on to say that the delays were due to “complacency and lack of urgency,” noting the Crown and the court “failed to take control of the prosecution and move it along effectively.”

The decision could be appealed at the Supreme Court of Canada, but Jeeti says she’s been told that Crown does not plan to do that.

She says she has never felt like her case was a priority, and questions why nothing is being done to address the people who asked for or enabled the delays.

“They don’t hold the defence accountable for all the adjournments that the defence asked for, and the judge granted each and every adjournment,” she says.

“They don’t actually offer any remedies or solutions to hold defence accountable, or the judge accountable.”

And she wants people to understand how much suffering these delays caused her and her sisters.

“When it comes to the criminal justice system, it does not take into account the human cost, the emotional toll that it takes on people like us that have already suffered so much. It doesn’t take into account our human rights, it doesn’t take into account how many times our lives have been disrupted over eight years — having to pack up and go to court up in Williams Lake, there and back, and there and back, with all these freakin’ adjournments.”

‘This is a sexual assault case, very few make it to trial’

Perhaps what is most upsetting to Jeeti is that she decided to come forward and tell her family what Virk had done to her because she wanted to help protect other girls who have been victimized. She was worried her abuser might hurt others.

“I found that I had a duty to speak up, and I had a duty to protect my child, my daughter, I had a duty to speak up for that little Jeeti and that innocence of me and my sisters of what we were at that time when the harm started being inflicted upon us,” she says.

“Back in 2006, once I broke my silence and saw that the family’s not going to do anything about it, my parents didn’t do anything about it our extended family didn’t, then we went to the police. That was naturally the next thing to do because how do you stop a person from harming others? Well, you go to the police, right? If your family can’t hold them accountable, so that’s what we did.”

Now, she worries the outcome of her case will discourage women and girls from reporting to police or pursuing justice through the courts.

“What message is the criminal justice system sending to other survivors? It’s telling them that you don’t matter. It’s actually further silencing and quashing voices of survivors. It’s not setting a precedent for more abuse victims to come forward. It’s not saying you can rely on us, you can trust our Canadian justice system,” she says.

“It’s not like somebody stole my purse or someone robbed the bank. This is a sexual assault case, very few make it to trial in the first place. Crown hardly takes on these cases.Here we have a guilty verdict. We made it all the way through my sisters and I. We were committed, we were dedicated, and it’s not just about justice for me and my sisters. This is actually setting a precedent for all survivors.”

Data shows Jeeti is right. According to Statistics Canada, only one in 10 sexual assaults that are reported to police results in a conviction. Cases where the perpetrator is a family member, and historical cases are less likely to make it to court.

One in five cases where a report to police is made more than a year after the attack sees the inside of a courtroom after charges are laid. On the other hand, assaults that are reported on the day they occur go to court 53 per cent of the time.

While 64 per cent of cases of stranger sexual assault go to court, only 36 per cent of those involving a family member have the same fate.

‘Not a survivor-centric system’

For survivors like Jeeti whose cases wind their way through the system, the process of reporting to police, of testifying in court and being cross-examined for hours too often compounds the harm of being victimized and sexually assaulted.

“The system is not a survivor-centric system, the system actually adds more trauma. You not only revisit old trauma, but you are retraumatized again, and again, and again. It seems like that’s the way the system is set up. So, if you’re looking to find healing, the criminal justice system is not the place that one finds healing,” she says.

“There’s a lot of energy time and money that one has to spend on themselves to find their wholeness and their completeness, and the criminal justice system is just a place where I felt my energy and my resources were just being depleted — that means emotionally, physically financially. ”

Jeeti says it was “heart-wrenching” not being able to be with her sisters because of the pandemic when last week’s decision came down

“We’re so used to, through this journey, being together on such important dates. Our life has been nothing but waiting for dates and being together on certain dates over the last 14 years since this has been going on, “she says.

“Having to be in our own places away from each other, it’s just not the same over the phone, it’s not the same via technology. We can’t actually physically hold each other and console each other and offer each other hope.”

Because we are girls

The Pooni sisters’ case is chronicled in the 2019 documentary Because We are Girls. 

The film shows how the three sisters supported each other through the case, travelling to court together, confronting their parents together, and Bhangra dancing in the snow-covered streets of Williams Lake after the guilty verdict was handed down. Jeeti says they made the film as a way to confront the shame and stigma surrounding sexual assault. The sisters have received countless messages of support and gratitude from other survivors.

“I knew how much I had suffered, and I knew how much the culture suppresses, and the oppression that we all face, when it comes to sexual assault and having to be silent about it for all these years,” she says.

“The film, it’s just doing miracles across the world.”