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Judiciary prepares for post-election disputes

A policeman uses a poster to show a woman how to mark a ballot correctly in Freetown, Sierra Leone on 6 August, days ahead of the country's presidential elections on 11 August 2007.
(Tugela Ridley/IRIN)

As results trickle in from Sierra Leone’s presidential and parliamentary elections on 11 August, losing parties are likely to challenge the results in court. The problem is that the country is still emerging from a civil war and its institutions - particularly the judiciary - remain weak.

"The perception of the judiciary as unjust and subservient to the executive is still very strong," said a report issued in July by the International Crisis Group. The UK-based Chatham House issued its own report earlier in the year describing the judiciary as "easily corrupted".

The country’s 2004 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report concluded that the country’s weak judiciary had been one of the root causes of the war which ravaged the country from 1991-2002. The Commission recommended that the government focus resources on improving the overall performance of the judiciary, but observers contacted by IRIN all agreed that the recommendations had gone largely unheeded.

Against this background, electoral officials are concerned that even though local and international observers generally deemed the elections free and fair, the credibility of the results could still be in jeopardy.

“Election matters have to be dealt with with sufficient dispatch," Reginald Fynn, legal expert at the National Electoral Commission (NEC) told IRIN.

Josehine Koroma, deputy executive director of the Network Movement For Justice And Development, told IRIN: "The [judicial] system here is very slow and if you have to wait for a long time it could lead to something disastrous in this country.”

Two new electoral courts

Electoral issues are, in fact, not being dealt with by the regular courts. In July, Sierra Leone's chief justice, Ade Renner, established two special electoral courts within the High Court.

One deals with criminal offences such as violence, tearing down of posters and impersonating candidates; the other deals with petitions challenging election results. Once the results are announced, parties have up to seven days to lodge a complaint.

The courts, which have been set up with support of the UN Development Programme and funded through the Elections Basket Fund, are to sit in Freetown and in the regional cities of Bo, Kenema and Makeni over the next six months.

The new courts have been widely praised. "These courts clear the air and appease the minds of people who have grudges," Koroma told IRIN.

Double judicial standards

Yet observers are also concerned that Sierra Leone’s judiciary is based on double standards.

Most criminal cases take years to conclude, during which time the accused languish in substandard prisons, relying on relatives for medicine and food. The few well-to-do indictees easily bribe poorly paid magistrates, especially at the local level.

Civil society groups have questioned the logic of donors funding the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, which is trying just a handful of the indictees deemed to bear the greatest responsibility for Sierra Leone’s armed conflict. The court receives around US$25 million during each of its first three years of operation.

By contrast, the government’s entire budget for 2007 is only $414 million, of which less than one percent is spent on its judiciary.

"All this money is spent on the Special Court but they should have strengthened local justice," John Caulker, executive director of civil society group Forum for Conscience, told IRIN.

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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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