Human Rights Activists Say No To Unveiling Of Rape Victims In Open Court

When an alleged rapist is arraigned, the charges are read to the accused who either pleads guilty or not guilty. The prosecutor then calls out the name of the Investigating Police Officer.

Now the grouse of some human rights enthusiasts is grounded in the moment when the prosecutor proceeds to call out the name of the victim, especially an underaged one, who must stand up and identify herself, just as the witnesses in her case.

Any reluctance on the part of the victim or witnesses is always rebuffed by the prosecutor and sometimes the magistrate, too, who always insists that the plaintiffs identify themselves.

The human rights activists lashed out at this “aberration” that has gone on for so long in an environment where such should normally not be heard of. The “aberration” plays in some Lagos magistrates’ courts and, indeed, similar courts across the country.

It’s a violation of rights —Joe Okei-Odumakin

But rights activists criticised this long-standing but “distasteful practice,” and called for a better deal for s3xual violence victims.

A human rights campaigner, Joe Okei-Odumakin, said, “I think it is wrong to have an underage victim of rape stand and witness in court without her face covered. The victim’s rights should be respected. We have her future to protect. We need to protect her from stigmatisation and there is the need to build the victim’s confidence.”

Also commenting on the issue of naming underage victims, a human rights lawyer, Mrs Adetola Olatunde, pointed out that the onus lies on the prosecution to protect victims. “Like adult victims, children, too, must appear in court to give evidence if a perpetrator is to be held accountable. However, in some exceptional cases, especially where a victim is of extreme tender age, her evidence may be taken in camera. This is likely to be so upon the application of the prosecution,” Olatunde said.

She urged law enforcement agents to show empathy towards rape victims and not be judgmental by seeing them as being responsible for what has happened to them. “Victims of rape should be offered some protection and confidentiality within the scheme of criminal justice architecture and this is possible by ensuring that only persons such as the victims, witnesses, lawyers, and necessary court staff who have some role to play in a court session are allowed to be present, while proceedings are ongoing,” she said.

Like the woman accused of adultery in the Bible, the nine-year-old girl was made to stand in open court and face the man whom she called “Uncle” who allegedly took away her innocence forever – by defiling her.

Although she was standing beside her father, the fear in Aisha’s (pseudo name) face was palpable. The prosecutor called her name and ordered her to stand up in the full glare of everyone present in the courtroom for other matters. The reactions from the gallery of the Ikeja Magiatrates’ Court were mixed. While some people cursed the alleged rapist under their breaths, others craned their necks in order to catch a glimpse of the young child that had been raped. Amidst all this, the girl’s father tried to hold back tears.

Speaking with Saturday Tribune after the court proceedings, the distraught man lamented his inability to protect his young daughter from his neighbour who made it a habit to s3xually assault her by luring her with sweets and biscuits. Asked how he felt that his daughter was made to stand up in an open court, he pointed out that he had wished the system could somehow exclude his daughter from her abuser’s arraignment. “I feel pained that now everyone knows that my daughter has been defiled and that she is no longer a virgin,” he lamented.

Raped by criminals, shamed by law

Such was the case of a 15-year-old housemaid who was raped by her employer’s driver.

The matter was reported to the police and the driver was charged to court.  When the case was called, the full name of the victim was mentioned and she was mandated to stand up for identification. With tears streaming down her face, Abigail (not real name) was made to face her alleged rapist. She, however, kept her head bowed refusing to look at her alleged assailant.

The naming and ‘shaming’ of victims of rape and domestic violence in some magistrates’ courts have become a norm. But this negates claims that victims are protected under the law. It is, however, sad that victims, especially children, go through the harrowing ordeal of facing their abusers.

A police prosecutor, who craved anonymity says that trials, especially those concerning underaged children, are conducted in the magistrate’s chambers – away from the prying eyes of the public. “It is just the normal protocol to call out the names of the victims. We also call out the victims for purposes of clarity.”

Prodded further on whether some of the victims or their parents ever complained about how they were called out in the open court, the prosecutor was vague with his answer. He insisted that the main purpose of the trial is for the victims to get justice. “It’s for their own good,” he said, adding that after all, the victim would just be named for that day.

Salt is, however, added to the injury when some overzealous prosecutors give graphic details of how the victim was raped.

Speaking with Saturday Tribune, a lawyer, Mr Silas Okemuo, pointed out that rape cases are so sensitive that there are designated courts that can try them. “Only state high courts can try perpetrators of rape in Nigeria because it is a serious offence. It is beyond the power of a magistrate’s court to handle unless it is temporarily pending before such court within which it will be properly brought before a high court,” he said.

“I also believe strongly that the naming and shaming of rape victims in open court should not be.  Rape victims, especially children, should be protected because they are still vulnerable. I find it absurd that a child who is a victim of rape or domestic violence should be made to stand up in open court. The position of the law has been seen to be compromised in some cases. Also, in practice, a case of rape may be struck out by a court if a victim refuses to attend court proceedings for the purpose of giving evidence. This sometimes happens when the victim, out of fear, refuses to come to court let alone testify,” he said.

According to Okemuo, a lot of rape cases have gone unreported and where they are reported, it is usually difficult to get witnesses because victims, especially adult ones, are often ashamed of coming out to testify in court. He submitted that negative attitude and insensitive investigation methods of the law enforcement agents, particularly the police, are also a source of discouragement to rape victims.

Are judges complaining? –Police

Responding on the propriety or otherwise of the “naming and shaming” saga involving rape victims, the Lagos command of the Nigeria Police asked if judges and magistrates were complaining about the matter, to which our correspondent answered in the negative. The command’s spokesperson, Chike Oti, then promised that he would find the correct position of the law regarding the practice and revert. As of press time, he was yet to fulfil his promise.

It’s surprising –Lagos anti-rape agency

The coordinator of the Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team, Mrs Titilola Vivour-Adeniyi, expressed surprise at the issue of naming rape victims in open court.

“Well, I am hearing it for the first time but I can assure you that there must be a reason for doing it. I believe that it must be for clarity purposes so that the magistrate can know who and who is involved. I also strongly believe that underage victims are also protected under the law because the trials are almost always done in secret,” she said.