Heat of justice overwhelmed families of accused and victims at Malakal mobile court

Amongst her siblings the 4-year-old girl has been playing and sharing smiles as usual, yet something is terribly wrong. Had that not been the case, the girl and her parents would not have been here, at the mobile court in Malakal.

The girl and her parents have been staying at the protection site set up by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan for thousands of displaced persons in the region. Here, like in any other community, crimes are committed. Unlike most other towns, however, Malakal has no judges, with the judicial system having collapsed, as one of numerous serious consequences of armed conflict.

Yet a judge is here, flown in from the capital Juba for three days, to expedite justice in three cases of serious crimes, including armed robbery and attempted rape. He and other national judicial officers arrived here with the assistance of the peacekeeping mission’s unit for Rule of Law.

Now the judge is keen to find out what actually happened on a shocking day, as the 4-year-old was walking home from her grandmother’s place, also within the protection site.

In the presence of hundreds of people at the Malakal County Court, the case will finally, after a long and painful wait, be heard. The suspects to be tried, in this and the other incidents of delayed justice, have been brought here from the UNMISS protection site, under heavy UN police security. The prosecution and the defence are here. The scene is set.

The accused is a 26-year-old man, another resident of the protection site. He allegedly intercepted this little girl as she was walking home. With the promise of candy, he is suspected of having led her astray, then removing her clothes and assaulting her sexually. She seems to have been spared more advanced sexual violations only because a search for the girl, including calling out her name on a megaphone, was quickly initiated.

The spectators are amazed by her brave testimony, and outraged by what they hear. Her mother’s tears keep flowing down her cheeks as she listens, again, to a description of the events that unfolded on that particular evening.

Any doubts about the guilt of the suspect are removed by the overwhelming evidence compiled against him on the night of the crime. The little girl’s clothes were found � under the suspect’s bed!

The following day, the sentences are read out. The man is found of having sexually harassed the 4-year-old girl.

Convict X, you’re hereby sentenced to imprisonment for three years, with effect from today, 21 February. You [are] to be handed over to the National Prison Service by the United Nations Police for the sake of clearance, the judge booms.

I am happy about the verdict today on my daughter’s case, although it is hard to believe what happened. For me, this sentence is not enough, but I can’t be above the law,’ the mother of the 4-year-old said.

The public prosecutor of the Central Upper Nile area, Daud Othon Othow, shares her view.

It was a serious crime and with a sentence of three years imprisonment he was lucky. [At the same time] this is a sign to would-be criminals that anybody involved in such criminal acts will face the same judgment, he said.

Defence lawyer Santino Koch was also satisfied.

Whatever comes out from the court is always justified, and what I would like to say is that the judgment was right, he commented.

The mobile court’s visit to Malakal is the second one, with a previous short stint having taken place in mid-October 2018. On that occasion, the court tried four cases involving five persons accused of serious crimes of sexual violence committed in the UNMISS protection site. The five suspects were all found guilty and sentenced to between 18 months and 10 years in prison.

The peacekeeping mission’s support of the mobile court is part of its broader strategy to address the all-too-common impunity for serious crimes, including sexual and gender-based violence, by promoting increased accountability in national courts.

Source: UN Mission in South Sudan