Thursday, February 23, 2006

LIBERIA: Sexual abuse of children still rampant, report says

MONROVIA, 22 February (IRIN) - Child rape - with victims as young as age four - is common across post-war Liberia, topping a list of abuses against children over the last year, a rights monitoring group says.

The lack of effective laws to combat rape complicates the problem, the National Child Rights Observation Group (NACROG) said in a report released this week.

"It is quite frustrating and unimaginable that a grown-up man will choose to completely damage a young child in the name of sex and enjoys impunity simply because laws are weak, ancient and non-effective," NACROG's report said.

Liberia passed a new rape law late last year, for the first time officially making the act illegal, but activists say the law still needs to be strengthened and the legal system bolstered.

NACROG said 48 cases of rape against children ages four to 13 were documented in the last year in eight of Liberia's 15 counties. The group cited at least seven cases of gang rape against children in the capital, Monrovia.

"Two instances of rape leading to death were recorded with no punishment for the perpetrators," NACROG coordinator Jerolinmek Piah told IRIN.

Of the 48 cases, 26 were either settled out of court or abandoned by the alleged victims, NACROG said, while 16 cases are pending and six have been settled in court.

The new law passed by parliament in December made all rape illegal; previously only gang rape was seen as a criminal offence. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who was sworn in last month as Africa's first elected female president, said at the time, "Nobody will abuse our girls and women and get away with it."

The scourge of sexual abuse has long gripped Liberia, where rape against civilians was rampant during the 14-year war that ended in 2003. And the country's justice and security structures are crawling back after years of combat and chaos. The UN mission in Liberia, UNMIL, said in a report in January that the legal system is shaky at best, and that re-establishing it "represents the single greatest challenge to lasting peace [in Liberia]."
UNMIL last week launched an awareness campaign, encouraging victims of rape to report the crime to police and seek medical assistance.

Lois Bruthus, president of the Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia (AFELL), told reporters on Tuesday that the criminal court is flooded with rape cases, causing trial delays. AFELL is calling for a court devoted to rape charges. "We believe that the best option would be the setting up of a specialised court that will handle only rape cases," Bruthus said. "We are going to move on to petition the legislature for the creation of such a court."

Anti-rape activists say one of the problems even in the new law is that some rapists can still be freed on bail. Piah of NACROG called for bail to be eliminated for all rapes, not just for gang rape or other extreme cases. The law signed in December says punishment and possibility of bail depend on the severity of the offence. AFELL's Bruthus said her group would spearhead an effort to eliminate bail for all accused rapists.

Source: Alternet

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