Family of rape survivor angry over police handling of case; suspect released by police, influenced by “big hands”
Liberia, after its gruesome 14-year civil war, came up with one of the toughest laws, the Rape Law, which calls for anyone convicted of rape to spend not less than 10 years in prison. Moreover, the law declares rape a non-bailable offense. With the expectation that such tough legislation would be a key deterrent to the crime, the menace of rape instead is soaring in the country, especially during the Administration of Liberia’s self-proclaimed “Feminist-in-Chief”, President George Weah.
Even though the law exists and remains uncompromising, law enforcers and women’s rights advocates have found it difficult over the years to see it implemented due to a number of factors including compromise by parents of the survivor, failure of survivors to expose, and community leaders’ involvement in making a settlement to compromise the case.
With these challenges, it is also interesting to note that law enforcers, mainly officers of the Liberia National Police (LNP), appear to be enabling the dangerous an illegal acts of compromise.
A case in point involves a 19-year-old girl (name withheld) and junior student of the University of Liberia who encountered gang-rape in the Black Town Community, Fendell Township, Montserrado County on July 26 this year.
The incident occurred when the survivor sought shelter with her friends to spend the night when she realized that it was too late and dark to take the risk of walking alone to go home.
The two men who allegedly raped the young lady include Morris Tamba and another identified only George, who do not reside in the Black Town Community but have been visiting a relative who is a housemate to the survivor’s friend.
Speaking in an interview with the Daily Observer, the survivor explained that on the night of July 26, she decided to go outing with her friends in the Cooper Farm Community in Paynesville. Upon their return, she decided to spend the night with her friend because it was late for her to go home.
In tears, the survivor narrated, “When my friends and I were asleep, my stomach began embarrassing me, causing me to vomit. They used one of the tenants’ water to clean me up and our voices eventually woke the owner of the water up and she became angry why we used her water. She insisted that we replace her water immediately, and some friends went to the nearby well to replace her water. When they left to get the water, I felt very weak and therefore decided to go back in the room to lie down, but unfortunately for me, two guys jumped on me and started to take off my clothes. When I discovered what they were trying to do to me, I started to shout and that was when one of them slapped me and the other used a pillow to block my nose and mouth while the one who slapped me raped me. After he was done, his friend also came out to do the same to me.”
According to the survivor, she reported the case to her parents the following day, and they took her to the Du-port Road One-Stop Center where survivors of rape are treated. After asking her to register her case, she and her parents were told to provide gasoline for the police vehicle to take them around in search of the perpetrators.
“We did not have money for this unexpected request, and therefore they threw our case out and we took it to the Mount Barclay Police Depot. The same issue of registering our case came up, and we registered and provided transportation for the police; we did and our case was turned over to the Women and Children Section headed by Annie S. Wilson,” the survivor explained.
The survivor said she was later sent to the JDJ One-Stop Center for medical examination after arresting the perpetrators.
She lamented that after the police arrested two perpetrators, the Women and Children Protection Division commander, Madam Annie Wilson, asked her family again to pay for all the photocopies of documents, transportation of police among others, a situation she says is quite frustrating in handling rape issues.
According to the survivor, the medical examination results were given directly to commander Wilson, and to the regret and frustration of the family, the police said it was their record and could not be disclosed to the family.
Going through the preliminary investigation, Henry said it was his friend George who sexually abused the survivor.
However, on the order of commander Annie Wilson, George has been set free without court appearance on grounds that he was not guilty of the crime.
The role of the police is to arrest, keep an alleged perpetrator in its detention cell for not more than 72 hours, and turn the person to the court for prosecution. Whatever that concerns adjudication of cases lies solely with the court, and it is the court alone that exonerates a person of a crime.
According to section 2:14.70 of Liberia’s Rape Law, with specific reference to gang rape, “A person has committed gang rape, a first-degree felony, if he/she purposely promotes or facilitates rape or agrees with one or more persons to engage in or cause the performance of conduct which shall constitute rape.”
Being a person of age and knowing what happened, the survivor said: “After paying all of that money and we returned to the station, my family and I were informed that George was not guilty, and therefore they were releasing him from police cell instead of sending us to court. It was on this basis that we came to the court.”
The father of the survivor is yet to understand why one of the perpetrators was released as they could not appear before the court. He said the action indicates that the case has been compromised, noting that he does not trust the Liberia National Police.
“I feel bad about my daughter’s condition, but if they do not produce the other perpetrator, I will sue that policewoman called Annie Wilson,” he angrily told the Daily Observer.
He blamed the police for the increase in sexual and gender-based violence cases especially rape in the country.
“The way rape cases are handled contributes to an increase in the rape and other SGBV related issues,” he added.
According to the survivor, the decision of the police to the release of one of the perpetrators is influenced by “big hands.” The survivor disclosed that Officer Wilson called her family and informed them that big hands were behind the case so she had to set the guy free.
Parents of the survivor have resisted and called for re-arrest of the second perpetrator, only identified as George.
When contacted at the Mount Barclay Police Deport, Madam Wilson refrained from speaking to the press on grounds that, after her investigation, she will forward the case to the Headquarters of the Liberia National Police and those responsible for communication will speak to the issue.
Assistant Spokesperson for the LNP, Lewis Norman has expressed shock and disappointment over the allegation surrounding commander Annie Wilson and promised to follow up with the case to ascertain where the police went wrong.
“I do not know where this is coming from, but we do not re-victimize victims,” Mr. Norman told the Daily Observer. “We do not ask for transportation. What we do is get the patrol car to use or use some of the police officers’ cars to make the arrest. I will make a call at the police station to find out where that is coming from.”
He admitted that the office of the Spokesperson is aware of the case and that it has been transferred to the Sex Crimes Unit and Criminal Court “E” for prosecution.
On August 11, the case was taken to the Bensonville Magisterial court and later forwarded to Criminal ‘E’ for prosecution on grounds that the Magisterial court does not handle rape cases.
The survivor has also cried foul that the statement submitted by Madam Wilson was not the survivor’s initial statement. “I wrote my own statement when we went to the police, but what was presented today is not my written statement.”
Expressing her frustration over how rape and other sexual violence cases are handled by the police, Amb. Daintowon Doman Payebaye, Coordinator of the Young Women Leadership and Knowledge Institute Liberia (YOWLI), said it is sad that compromise of cases of such nature most often come from the police.
“They can be the first to tell the families to settle down for compromise,” she said.
Madam Payebaye said the police is a major obstacle in the fight against Rape and other sexual and gender-based violence issues across the country because they provide protection for alleged perpetrators.
The sharp increase in SGBV cases resulted in the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), Maj. Gen. Prince C. Johnson, III, calling for the Death Penalty for rapists. The same was emphasized by this year’s National Independence Day Orator, Rev. Dr. Simon L. Dunbar.
Since the calls, there have been debates across the country evaluating the pros and cons for death penalty for rapists, and some human rights groups have detested the suggestion and preferred life imprisonment.
Interestingly, President George M. Weah has also added weight affirming his “unflinching support” for capital punishment against convicted rapists.
Women’s rights campaigners believe rape has now been “decriminalized” because the “Rape Law is not enforced to the letter as evidenced by an alarming increase.
The Commissioner for Legislative Treaties Matters and Law, with oversight for Gender at the Independent National Commission on Human Rights, Madam Tonieh Talery Wiles, described the enforcement of the current rape law in Liberia as ‘weak’, thereby necessitating excesses that are leading to uncontrolled pre-trial detention of rape suspects.
“Even if we agree for ‘death penalty’, we might not get there because you need evidence to convict a person and we do not have the capacity. For instance, we don’t have a DNA machine and the police do not have the necessary resources and facilities to gather the pieces of evidence they need to prosecute these cases,” Madam Wiles said.
The Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection has recorded so far this year 963 cases of sexual and gender based violence, of which 667 are rape cases and 43 are cases of gang rape.
This story was supported by the UN Spotlight Initiatives in collaboration with the Female Journalists Association of Liberia about COVID_19 and its impact on SGBV against Women.