Liberia’s 'Rape Court': Progress for women and girls delayed?

Court E – Liberia's innovative new courtroom just for rape cases – must now weather a national media drama and all the scrutiny that comes of trying a high-level government employee.

By , Correspondent

Last year, I reported with the intrepid Glenna Gordon a story about Liberia's Court E, a court chamber in the capital city of Monrovia dedicated only to rape cases. The court, which will turn two in Februrary, was a direct response to what many people we met called a rape "epidemic" in Liberia. The country's post-war rape stats are sky-high, and most of the victims are young girls.

Court E had all the marks of innovation -- an in-camera room so that the victim could testify without having to physically sit before her rapist, a jury and the members of the public admitted to the courtroom (which isn't open; access is controlled by the judge) and a Sexual and Gender Based Crimes Unit of the justice department, assigned to prosecute the cases but also to give support services to victims and their families.

All those innovations aren't doing much good at the moment. Right now, Court E is hosting its most famous accused, Caesar Freeman. According to the local Star Radio, the senior-level civil servant, who works at the Government Services Agency, has been indicted for rape, gang rape and kidnapping. Star radio reports that the indictment tells the story this way: The victim allegedly asked Freeman for a ride, and he had an unidentified friend allegedly took her to three different places and asked her for sex; she refused each time. Freeman denies the charges; his family alleges they are politically-motivated fabrications.

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Star Radio says Freeman tried to get bail, even though gang rape is not a bailable offense in Liberia; other media reported that bail was refused. He demanded a speedy trial after being held for about three weeks -- in a country where people spend months and months in jail before seeing the inside of a courtroom.

That set off a debate in the press, and among Liberia's lawyers, about whether the "rape law" is unconstitutional. Defendants' rights advocates want speedier trials; the New Democrat reports 213 people have been held in a Monrovia prison "beyond statutory limits" since being accused. Some lawyers have since spoken out against the rape law.

I don't have current numbers on this, but my sense is that it's not just accused rapists held beyond statutory limits. Access to justice -- by which I mean the chance to see the inside of a courtroom -- is abysmally slow in Liberia, as in so many other post-conflict countries.

Meanwhile, a source close to the process tells me that the victim has been intimidated and witnesses threatened. At least one local media outlet, meanwhile, named the victim. That's not a matter of best practice debate, as it can be here in the States. In Court E, it's against the law.

That naturally displeased the judge, who I'm told has considered banning all media from the trial. That would be an unfortunate consequence of such an irresponsible decision -- but not one without rationale, in a courtroom that has gone to such great lengths to protect victims from the social stigma and retraumtization that a legal process can spark.

The case also sparked another notable news moment: Blaming the victim. "The law on rape should also take account of our young ladies and women who entice men into immorality and sin," one op-ed urged. Here's a longer excerpt from the same op-ed and my favorite example of the incredible chauvinism being roused as Freeman defends himself:

The young man becomes attracted to the young lady, gives her the drinks and later proposes sex. A mutual consent is reached after the young man has agreed to pay L$500.00 in exchange for the sex. After the act, the young lady, on seeing a lot of cash on the young man, demanded for more cash. An altercation ensues leading to quarrel. The lady shouts and accuses the young man of rape. A policeman, without on-the-spot investigation, intervenes and takes the young man to a police station, places him behind bars and charges him the next day for rape and a Magisterial Court takes over the matter with a trial.

Here's something to keep in mind: Every quote I've about rape – from why it happens to whether the law is constitutional – in the 30 pages of news stories shared with me by someone who follows the court, is from a man. Here's something else to keep in mind: In the space of three weeks, the media reported allegations of rape against an immigration official who ran a checkpoint and a night school principal, and the conviction of a an ex-police colonel for rape. What's notable about that? They're all men, and all men with power.

Hmm. Rape and power. Not so unusual a combination.

Court E was showing signs of weakness even last year. Poorly funded, new, and facing a backlog of more than 200 complaints, it was the tiny chamber that could...maybe. Now it must weather a national media drama and all the scrutiny -- and pressure -- that comes of trying a high-level government employee. Even the court's biggest fans aren't feeling so optimistic these days.

I'll try to keep you posted.

Jina Moore is a reporter who blogs at jinamoore.com.

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