After five years of delayed justice, a mobile High Court opens in Bentiu
Arriving at a partly run-down building just after 8 a.m. with files in hand, Bentiu’s new mobile High Court officials immediately settle down to their business of the day – studying cases they have scheduled to start on a Tuesday afternoon.
For the first time in more than four years criminal trials will be heard in Bentiu town, located in South Sudan’s remote north.
At the directive of the country’s Chief Justice, the court will, for two weeks, try 27 serious criminal cases of suspects from a United Nations Protection of Civilians (PoC) site.
“There has been delayed justice, or a complete of absence of justice for the last four years, because of the war,” says Anees Ahmed, a senior Rule of Law Officer at the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).
His office works to protect civilians “by ensuring justice and there is rule of law. Civilians cannot be protected in a lawless society,” says Ahmed.
The UNMISS Rule of Law office, which also supports the re-establishing of security institutions necessary to build and sustain peace, has helped in refurbishing the courthouse within its existing resources.
“For the first time, a criminal justice process will take place in Bentiu, right from a criminal investigation then prosecution, leading to conviction or acquittal,” says Ahmed.
“If these people are found guilty, then they will go to the local Bentiu prison. So UNMISS is ensuring that although the PoC sites are within its jurisdiction, those who fall foul of the law and commit crimes should face justice. And of-course in respect of those who commit crimes even outside our PoC sites should face justice,” says Ahmed.
“We are working for justice so that the accused can be tried, fast,” said a senior judge of the mobile High Court, Peter Mazen, who flew to Bentiu from the county’s capital, Juba, on the eve of the start of the maiden mobile court sessions.
“They should either be detained or released,” said Judge Mazen, adding, “he or she can be in prison if they did wrong. One is not supposed to be held without trial. This means there is delay in justice. But now, with the presence of lawyers here to defend what law demands, it is something good and it encourages me to go ahead because the lawyers are here for the accused.”
With the legal team ready, and minutes after 2 pm local time, a convoy of troopers – bearing United Nations flags, and under heavy guard of a Force Protection Unit of Ghanaian Police – drive into the court compound, transporting two suspects, whose cases would start immediately.
As the clock ticks, the sluggish afternoon atmosphere at the court grounds, where children have been playing, is abruptly interrupted by the arrival of the vehicles.
A hectic pace ensues as the first suspect is escorted from one of the vehicles, for the first case to be heard after years of conflict.
As senior Judge Peter Mazen walks into the courtroom to start proceedings, all are upstanding.
Routine court proceedings begin, and the trial is finally underway.
Speaking after the start of two hearings of the day, the senior judge acknowledged a sluggish trial process in the country due to conflict, which has resulted to a breakdown of infrastructure and a collapse of numerous institutions. With judicial personnel fleeing the conflict, the last recorded hearing in Bentiu happened sometime before December 2013.
“The capacity of the judicial system is very minimal since the crisis that happened,” says Judge Mazen.
“There are some places that closed, including Bentiu, and there are more places like Bentiu, and up to now the administration could not bring in a judge to work because there is even no place to sit, and even the court is not there. Equipment for the court is not there, and even the staff are not there. Even Police are not there to work. So, all this forced the administration to start establishing former courts, including Bentiu court, for them to have judges,” explained the senior judge.
“We are supporting the peace process through ensuring that judicial institutions take the reform – the justice sector is one of the main important parts of the revitalized peace agreement,” says Ahmed, who paces up and down the main court corridor, proud that the mobile court is underway. Ahmed is referring to a peace agreement signed just before mid-September this year.
“We have started this mobile court with everything provided and nothing missing. Our security has been provided. And the hall provided, and all the capacity of all sides are available. The accused and the defense are both ready. So, we are being encouraged with all this, to work until late on the first day,” says Mazen.
The court house building has for the last four years been used by various government ministries but has now been handed back to the judiciary through a national effort.
It is a coincidence that the Mobile Court launched with the trial of two rape cases, just a couple of weeks after reports of rape incidents involving 150 women and girls in the area, and it is hoped that investigations, currently underway, will lead to justice at the court, for rape victims who have come forward.