My last post was cautiously optimistic about the current state of the Sierra Leone legal system. However, that optimism turned to disgust and embarrassment after I had the opportunity to observe a morning session of the juvenile courts in Freetown.
The courthouse in Freetown sits right next to the Cotton Tree, the national symbol of Sierra Leone. It is an old building that would have great presence if not for its dilapidated state. I met my guide/interpreter/colleague Mohamed Touray near the main entrance where a number of people were milling about. Mohamed, who works for an NGO called the Sierra Leone Court Monitoring Program, led me through the barren halls to a small room in the back of the building. Inside the room there were wooden benches for the public and participants to sit. On one side of the room the police prosecutors sat at a desk, pouring over the disorganized mounds of handwritten paperwork. In the front of the room was a sparse bench. Records are stored in a metal utility locker behind the bench. Overhead fans made a vain effort to shift the humid air and the noise from the generator outside the window made it difficult to hear what anyone was saying.
Mohamed told me that it is quite common for the children not to appear for their hearing. This day was no different. Of the 19 names called, only 5 were actually present. There are a number of reasons for this lack of attendance. The only juvenile detention facility in Freetown, Reman Home, is in a disastrous state. Often there is no food or security. As a result, the children escape quite frequently. Another reason is that there is no organized transport from any of the detention facilities to the court. The police prosecutors, though responsible for bringing the juveniles to court, showed little concern that the children under their charge were absent. Some of the children who were to appear that day were milling about outside the courtroom. The judge had to forcefully remind the police prosecutors that perhaps it would be a good idea to announce the name of the case out in the hallway before declaring that the juvenile was absent.
Also conspicuously absent were any lawyers. Of the 19 cases, only one had a lawyer. And the lawyer who was there was an embarrassment. Were he to repeat that performance in the United States I can only hope that he would be disbarred for malpractice. The lawyer made repeated objections that the police prosecutor was asking leading questions (he wasn't). While the witness was testifying, the lawyer was talking and telling jokes with the police prosecutors. Rather than make any substantive objection or argument, the lawyer would focus on superficial concerns like calling the child "the Accused" rather than "boy." The lawyer then made a bail application saying that Pademba Road prison was not suitable for children (its not). When the judge asked where he should send the boy, the lawyer sheepishly smiled and shrugged his shoulders. The lawyer then told the judge that he had someone who would act as surety for the bail, but that person had never agreed to do so. Unfortunately, my account cannot do justice to the absolute travesty of a lawyer this man was.
The police prosecutors also deserve a great deal of criticism. To become a police prosecutor you have to have a high school education, be part of the police force and go through a year of special training. However, since the police prosecutors get paid more than regular police, the positions are often achieved through nepotism rather than merit. The utter contempt that the police prosecutors showed toward the judge and the juveniles was disgusting. As one police prosecutor shrugged and made an unconcerned facial expression to the judge while explaining the absence of another child, I was revolted. So I was beyond anger when one of the police prosecutors began selling watches to her colleagues and people in the gallery while a witness was giving testimony.
Meanwhile, the juvenile cases went on. One case was remanded to the high court. With no counsel present the judge was left to instruct the 14 year old that if he wanted a copy of the evidence against him he would have to submit a written request to the records office down the hall. The child nodded his head in feigned understanding. The most disturbing case involved a child accused of rape. Many Sierra Leoneans appear much younger than they are, but this child was no more than 12. As he stood there in his tattered clothes the mother of the girl that he supposedly raped stood 5 feet from him and gave her account of the story. When the witness had finished, the judge turned to the child and asked him if he had any questions for the witness. Unsurprisingly, the child had not prepared a cross examination.
No lawyers, no probation officers. Just children handcuffed to each other in the front of the court room, with their bodies slumped and heads bowed. It was one of the most depressing and disgusting experiences of my life.
To be fair to the judge, he would often try to impose some semblance of order. He chastised the police prosecutors and was thoroughly unimpressed by the lawyer. Speaking with other people afterwards, I learned that often the judge does his best to accommodate the children and will hold closed sessions in chambers. This way he can hear the child and ask questions when the child does not feel the pressure of the court room. While this would be highly suspect in the United States, it really seems to be the only option for the judge to impart some sort of justice. For all his criticism, the judge has little power over the police prosecutors. There is no bailiff and any attempt to hold the police prosecutors in contempt would just make it more difficult for the judge to get anything done. If he were to chastise the lawyers, then the lawyers would just not show up. There is no money in juvenile cases. As for the prisons, the Reman Home has no food or facilities and the only other option is Pademba Road prison which houses adults. Although the judge seemed to be trying to do the right thing, there was little he could do.
The Sierra Leone Ministry of Justice is aware of this problem and is designing a three year plan to address legal reform. I will talk more about this plan later, but for now I can only say that the Sierra Leone legal system, from lawyers to police, is in desperate need of massive reform.