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    ‘Post Office scandal left me on brink of suicide’

    Former sub-postmistress Seema Misra, who was wrongly imprisoned, poses for a photograph at her home in Knaphill on January 12, 2024. (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images)

    Wrongly convicted due to bugs in the UK Post Office’s computer system, Seema Misra was sent to prison while two months pregnant.

    Had she had not been expecting her second child, Misra told AFP that she would have ended her own life “for sure”.

    Misra, now aged 48, took over the post office in West Byfleet, a village southwest of London, in 2005.

    Her very first day ended with her system registering an £80 deficit, a seemingly trivial problem that soon turned into a nightmare, she explained from her home in Woking.

    At first she tried to reassure herself that tallying up “is never penny to penny.”

    But deep down she thought: “Why wouldn’t it be penny to penny? Money goes in money goes out, it should be all balanced up.”

    The following week, her accounts showed a £200 deficit, which instantly doubled to £400 after she carried out instructions given to her by an adviser on a telephone helpline.

    The deficits grew over time, but the Post Office turned a deaf ear, blaming Misra’s accounting.

    Following an audit, an investigation and prosecution for theft, Misra was found culpable for a black hole of nearly £75,000.

    Misra pleaded guilty to falsifying accounts, having put her signature on inaccurate balance sheets, and pleaded not guilty to theft.

    Childbirth with electronic tag

    But all along the real culprit was “Horizon”, the accounting software developed by Japanese IT giant Fujitsu.

    Around 900 postal workers were convicted in total in what prime minister Rishi Sunak this week called “one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history”.

    Until her court case, Misra said she was “confident that I will get justice, it will be all fine.”

    But on November 10, 2010 – her eldest child’s 10th birthday – a judge sentenced her to 15 months in prison.

    Misra fainted on hearing her punishment, coming around in hospital before being taken to jail.

    “If I hadn’t been pregnant I would have killed myself, that’s for sure,” she recalled.

    At least four suicides have been recorded among those caught up in the scandal.

    She served four months behind bars, and then spent four months having to wear an electronic bracelet, even while giving birth.

    “I was thinking… the midwife would be thinking what kind of mother I’m going to be,” she said, fearing that she might end up back in prison if she broke her curfew.

    “All those kind of things were going on in my mind while I was giving birth.”

    She was forced to borrow from relatives for years, sell her business at a loss and a London flat she had bought to rent out was confiscated.

    Her family suffered “mentally” and “financially” as Misra could no longer find work because of her conviction.

    “We couldn’t enjoy the family moments together, all the special days were ruined,” she said.

    The family’s “dignity, our confidence” was another victim of the scandal, and “you can’t put any price tag on that,” she added.

    Suffering of the innocent

    Misra’s conviction was finally overturned in 2021, along with those of around 40 of her colleagues.

    Running a post office “could have been our adventure” and the start of a “business empire”, but “all that shattered,” said Misra, who arrived in the UK from India in 1994.

    She thought about returning to India, but decided not as she still harboured the hope of a better life for her family.

    Misra is still understandably “very angry” at the Post Office, which she said “could have stopped it a while ago”, but instead “hid the evidence and made innocent people suffer.”

    She wants to see those responsible “behind bars” and have their property confiscated, with their bonuses used to compensate victims.

    While welcoming last week’s announcement of a new law to exonerate and compensate wrongly convicted postal workers, she stresses that the government must now make this promise a reality quickly.

    But beyond that, “we need to set the right example to the world that we are developed country, that the system works here. We should feel safe.”

    (AFP)

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