Moyamba, Sierra Leone – For over two years, 17-year old Sorbah lived in fear and uncertainty. Falsely charged with burglary in early 2013, his life was put on hold.
“I was worried about my future. I was thinking, will I be able to go back to school?” he says.
Yet amidst thunderous applause, in a courtroom packed with family and friends, he finally received his ‘not guilty’ verdict.
“This is a great day for me. I am so relieved and happy. Ebola goes, justice comes,” he says.
Ebola put serious strain on Sierra Leone’s justice system. Court proceedings were stopped or slowed as officials stayed away. More arrests were made under emergency laws, putting pressure on Sierra Leone’s already overcrowded prisons. Many were held for long periods without trial.
“Even in [the capital] Freetown, we had to reduce our operations to the barest minimum, because judges were worried about the spread of Ebola if courts were too crowded,” says Stephen Yaya Mansaray, Sierra Leone’s Acting High Court Registrar.
The situation was worse in hard to reach areas.
“We’ve been unable to hold the High Court in Moyamba and other regions because it means you have to move all the people, the judges, registrar, state councils, equipment and exhibits. Not to talk of paperwork,” says Yaya Mansaray.
Before the outbreak, mobile courts helped ensure defendants in remote areas got fair trials. Moving courts closer to crime scenes means victims, witnesses and local communities can take part.
With UNDP support, mobile courts are now back in session, helping to clear the backlog of cases in Moyamba and three more of the worst affected regions.
“With UNDP financial and technical support, the Moyamba mobile court has already closed 24 of the 36 cases held back from the height of the epidemic,” says Lionel Laurens, UNDP’s Ebola Response Coordinator in Sierra Leone.
“Half of all backlog cases in the Port Loko and Freetown areas have also been cleared,” he adds.
According to Acting High Court Registrar Yaya Mansaray, “UNDP’s support has been instrumental in fast tracking cases and making it possible to hold the special circuit courts”.
Support from UNDP to the mobile courts kicked off in 2011. The work is part of a broader programme to boost access to justice across the country, especially in remote areas.
As part of the programme, UNDP recently began aiding special courts for victims of sexual and gender-based violence. These special courts “put much more emphasis on the victims,” says UNDP’s Laurens.
Sudipto Mukerjee, UNDP’s Country Director in Sierra Leone says, “people in detention, especially those held without trial, are some of the most vulnerable in the country.”
“The next five-year phase of our support to the justice sector will lay the groundwork for a strong, effective justice system, as we build back from Ebola,” he adds.
Supporting the most vulnerable is a major focus of the country’s national Ebola recovery plan, which aims to get to, and maintain zero Ebola cases and tackle priorities like healthcare and other service delivery.
To support the government, UNDP has launched its own recovery plan. The 18-month programme should “strengthen the government’s capacity to coordinate the recovery, help put down any future outbreaks, address the socio-economic impact of the disease, and build the resilience of hard-hit communities” said Mukerjee.
UNDP leads the UN’s support for Ebola recovery in the three hardest-hit countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Photo: UNDP Sierra Leone / Lesley Wright