Sofina Nikat has walked free after smothering her baby daughter Sanaya last year.
In April last year, Sofina Nikat smothered her baby daughter, Sanaya Sahib, and dumped her body in a creek. Today she walked free from court.
It’s hard not to feel anger rising up when you read the court’s decision. That poor little girl, her cute face smiling from the photo where she’s cuddling into her mum, her baby curls caught up behind a pink headband. Sanaya is gone. No one is in jail for it. Doesn’t a baby’s death matter? Isn’t killing an innocent, defenceless child the worst thing you can do?
It’s not surprising that the reaction on social media has been savage. People have called Nikat an “animal” and complained that she only received “a slap on the wrist”. Others have said that if a father had killed his baby the same way, the reaction would have been very different.
The family of Sanaya's father Samir Sahib have labelled the sentence unfair.
"We have had no justice for her death,” Zahraa Sahib told journalists outside court, AAP reports.
“I don't think it's very fair that we've lost our little girl and there's nothing for her.”
Nikat made headlines when she claimed a barefoot man of African appearance who smelt of alcohol had snatched Sanaya in a park in Melbourne’s Heidelberg West. But after the 15-month-old’s body was found, Nikat confessed to killing her. She was charged with murder.
However, that charge was later downgraded to infanticide, following the recommendation of two psychiatrists. A report from consultant psychiatrist Yvonne Skinner found that Nikat was “disturbed” when her baby died and not of sound mind.
Infanticide, in Victoria, is a charge that only applies to women who have killed their biological child while the balance of their mind was disturbed following childbirth. The maximum sentence is five years.
Victorian Supreme Court Justice Lex Lasry said today that he accepted evidence that Nikat was depressed when she suffocated Sanaya and threw her body into Darebin Creek, and would sentence her on that basis.
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"I accept that the way you acted after you had killed Sanaya was consistent with your irrational mental state," Justice Lasry said.
“The complexity of the mental state of some women after childbirth and for some time thereafter is not to be underestimated, particularly when it is made more difficult by the surrounding circumstances which occurred in your case.”
He sentenced Nikat to a 12-month community corrections order. She had served 529 days in jail before being released on bail in September. Justice Lasry said those 529 days were “a period long in excess of any sentence of imprisonment I would have considered imposing on you”.
Fijian-born Nikat was living in a refuge at the time of the killing. She was separated from her husband. Theirs had been an arranged marriage. Defence barrister Christopher Dane QC said Nikat had been a victim of domestic violence and had no financial or family support. Nikat’s parents had told her that a Fijian imam had told them that the baby was possessed by an “evil spirit”, and she had believed them.
These circumstances don’t excuse a mother killing her child. But those circumstances, in Nikat’s case, did contribute to her developing a mental illness. She was disturbed at the time of Sanaya’s death. Two psychiatrists agreed on that.
We should appreciate that the court has taken the complexity of the situation into account. Justice Lasry has made a difficult decision.
No one is saying Nikat is innocent. She’s guilty of infanticide. But that’s a lesser charge than murder. She didn’t get off scot-free. She spent well over a year in jail.
Justice Lasry believes Nikat’s chances of rehabilitation are good. Society doesn’t need to be protected from her.
Terri Smith, the CEO of Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA), says this is a “tragic and complex story”.
“For us at PANDA it reminds us of how serious perinatal mental illness can be,” she tells Mamamia.
“Sadly, this case does remind us that it can escalate to something that has devastating consequences.”
Smith says perinatal mental illness is a complication of biological, psychological and social factors. In Nikat’s case, it was like a “perfect storm”. Smith says it’s particularly tough for women in cultural groups where there’s a stigma around mental illness.
“We know really clearly there are two things that stop people getting help. The first is just not understanding what’s happening, and the second is shame about what’s happening.”
The Nikat case is a tragedy for everyone involved.
“My heart just goes out to her,” Smith says. “But it’s a whole community that suffers.”
Sanaya’s father’s family are suffering. Sanaya, poor little Sanaya, has been robbed of the chance to grow up. She won’t be forgotten.
As for Nikat, she has to live out the rest of her days with the knowledge that she was responsible for the death of her daughter.
Once again, a terrible tragedy has reminded us that we need to take mental illness more seriously.
- With AAP
If you or someone you care about is experiencing pre or post-natal depression or anxiety you can phone PANDA's National Helpline, Monday to Friday, 9am-7.30am AEST, on 1300 726 306.