Panelists Assert at Africa Pre-Trial Detention Day
Both Counselors Boakai N. Kanneh, chairman of the Law Reform Commission and Dempster Brown, in separate presentations yesterday at the celebration of the Africa Pretrial Detention Day, accused the Supreme Court and the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) for being responsible for a huge number of suspects who are behind bars awaiting trial on criminal charges around the country, as ‘gross human rights violation.’
Cllr. Kanneh recounted the Supreme Court’s recent report during the closing of its March Term that it claimed it delivered opinion (judgment) on 34 out of thousands of cases.
The celebration, organized by the Independent Human Rights Commission (IHRC) as part of the Africa Pretrial Detention Day, was intended for stakeholders to draw-up recommendations to reduce pretrial detention around the country.
It comes days after the Bureau of Correction and Rehabilitation at the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) released a report stating that of the 1,098 population at the Monrovia Central Prison (MCP) over 800 made up of pre-trial detainees.
Cllr. Kanneh said the court has five justices and one of its terms takes six months and therefore to admit that they decided 34 cases that were on appeal is unimaginable.
“This means that each of the justices heard one appeal case a month and about six and a half cases for the entire six months. What do you expect to happen? There will be too many people in jail,” the Law Reform Chairman said. “This is a violation of the rights of the people as prescribed by the constitution.”
These reports, Cllr. Kanneh suggested are not good for the country’s criminal justice system. Besides the Supreme Court, Cllr. Kanneh said the magisterial court should also be blamed for the manner in which it proceeds with criminal cases.
The law provides that if a person is taken to court, the court should take 10 days to collect evidence from the complainant and proceed immediately with the case. However, in the absence of sufficient evidence after the ten days the case must be dismissed and the accused set free. This, he said, is not happening.
“The court is only excited to see people going to jail and remain there while the complainant looks for evidence to be used against the accused, and this is completely wrong and a violation of the accused person’s rights to fair and speedy trial,” Cllr. Kanneh indicated. “Something needs to be done in that direction.”
But, Cllr. Brown took a different approach and blamed the Ministry of Justice for the unnecessary period that people are held behind bars, awaiting their day in court.
Justifying his argument, Cllr. Brown said the ministry will allow people to remain in jail, even, if there were no evidence to prosecute the case.
Brown also argued that while the accused is in jail, their lawyers try to file a motion for dismissal of the case as provided for under law, but the ministry would deliberately refuse, and the court at times grants the prosecution’s request so the accused continues to languish in prison.
“The law says if the prosecution fails to indict a suspect after two or three consecutive court terms that case must be dismissed, but that is not happening, instead, the prosecution will protest that they should be given the opportunity to look for evidence to convict the person and that is a complete violation of that person’s human rights,” Brown noted, adding “for the government to keep people in jail without trial is a serious human rights violation and must be stopped by this government.”
Cllr. Ernestine Morgan Awar, assistant court administrator of the Supreme Court and Solicitor General-designate Daku Mulbah, who were also panelists, did not respond to the statements made by Cllr. Kanneh and Cllr. Brown.
Cllr. Awar nevertheless claimed that the Supreme Court has made numerous efforts to mitigate the issue of pretrial detention. “We deeply regret this situation and call for an immediate review of the situation,” she said.
She said in 2016, they conducted a review of prison facilities throughout the country, and there were alarming pretrial detention issues in some of the counties like Montserrado, Nimba, Lofa Margibi, and Grand Bassa. “We have to come out with a recommendation to solve those human rights issues,” she stated.
For Mulbah, he blamed the situation on judges that are presiding over criminal courts throughout the country. “Even during trial, if any of the parties files a motion the judges would stop the case and take days before they can come out with a decision. Meanwhile, the accused would still be in jail while the case is delayed,” Mulbah indicated, adding, “you cannot blame the ministry for the pretrial detention, but the judges as well, and so, there is a need to review the laws on the book.”
Resident Judge Serena Garlawolo of Criminal Court E, (at the Temple of Justice) and Cllr. Tiawon Gongloe were among the panelists that blamed the police for the huge number of pretrial detainees.