Monday, November 21, 2005

The Other Side of Justice

It’s so easy to rant about the criminals that slip through Liberia’s justice system without retribution…until those criminals happen to be downtrodden people you know and care about.

For the past couple of days I’ve been advocating for three young men I’ve known since 1999 when they were just young drug-addicted street boys on the hustle. I helped design a residential rehabilitation and vocational training program for them at the Boys Town campus in Schiefflin. Over a hundred boys participated in that program during the two years of its existence. Funding ended partly because of the political climate at the time, and after Graduation exercises we placed some of the boys with carpenters, masoners and farmers to work as apprentices. Others—mostly the youngest ones—were reunited with their families and sent to formal schools. But in the end, some of them, like Isaac, Wleh, and Prince were discouraged by the lack of job opportunities and returned to the streets.

On Monday, November 14th, according to witnesses and police, a friend of Isaac, Wleh and Prince stole a handbag from a lady and ran off to their Carey Street hangout with it. The three defendants then gathered around him and fought to grab items from the bag for themselves. The three were caught on Tuesday, and the actual perpetrator was caught on Friday—the same day I heard about the arrest and visited them at Central Police Headquarters. I was told I could take them then, upon paying a fee “as a guarantee”, but I had no money at the time and none until today. Unfortunately, I arrived at the courthouse just in time to see the boys being led by UNMIL police to the minibus that would take them to “South Beach”—Monrovia’s prison. I told them not to worry—that I had just spoken with the complainant’s representative and with the police, and that I would now be able to sign for their release. But the courtroom judge, who had not even heard the defense, refused to release them in my care. He said a lawyer will have to file the papers to bail them out. The cost to do so will be six times what I had been asked to pay on Friday.

Where is the justice? The victim wants to know, but so do I. Why is the focus on Issac, Wleh and Prince, when they did not plan or carry out the actual crime? Why does the Writ of Arrest accuse them of conniving to snatch the purse when everyone involved agrees they were minding their own business when the purse happened to come their way? Why have these boys been kept for a week with no change of clothes and no access to either a private or a court-appointed lawyer? And most puzzling, why was the purse-snatcher released today? What sense does that make? Could it be that he, somehow, had the cash to get himself out?

The court case is set for Thursday. Maybe I'll get some answers there.

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