The New Humanitarian Annual Report 2021

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Rapists go free

[Liberia] Victims of sexual violence await medical attention in Liberia.
Victims of sexual violence await medical attention in Liberia (IRIN)

Liberia’s chief justice on Thursday rejected calls for the establishment of a special court to try rape cases following a United Nations report criticising the country’s high incidence of sexual violence and its weak judicial system.

"There is no need for such a court right now as our court systems can handle those cases," Chief Justice Johnnie Lewis told reporters.

The UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) said on Wednesday that courts and police have failed to fully prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence against women and children three years after the country’s civil war ended. Sexual violence, including sexual slavery, was rampant during the 14-year conflict.

"Rape and other forms of sexual assault and exploitation remain a serious risk for women and girls, including young children, yet far too little attention has been paid to investigating and trying suspects in accordance with the law," the UN human rights report said.

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected woman president, has promised to come down hard on rapists. A law passed in December made rape illegal for the first time in Liberia - previously only gang rape was considered a crime. The new law forbids bail and carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

The UN report, however, said so far the law had been ignored.

"Despite widespread publicity surrounding the legislation's contents and the personal commitment of the president to tackling this issue, the response of law enforcement and judicial authorities has been disappointing," said the report, which covered the period May to July.

It said rape suspects are regularly released on bail even where there is significant evidence indicating guilt.

"A teacher in Montserrado County allegedly bound and raped a 10-year-old girl and threatened to kill her if she reported the case,” the report said. “The suspect was arrested on 6 May but released on bail. When the mother inquired at the Temple of Justice, she was allegedly told that she would have to pay… for his re-arrest."

The UN report and women’s rights advocates say that poverty is driving women to settle cases of sexual violence outside the courts, encouraging impunity.

"One will see that most of the rape cases do not go to the courts because the perpetrators would give the family money as a way of settling it," said rural women’s rights advocate Mouna Carter. "Sometimes we received reports that family members of rape victims got [US $150] and up to [US $200] just to settle cases quickly.”

More generally, the report drew attention to what it said was a weak judicial system. UNMIL said courts in many parts of the country were not functioning and where they were only a fraction of the cases listed for trial were heard.

It cited inefficient investigation, prosecution and hearings, which have led to prolonged pre-trial detention. In other cases, such as those involving sexual violence, suspects were frequently released from detention without facing trial, the report said.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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