BUCHANAN, GRAND BASSA – Seven of then men on trial for the murder and gang-rape of three women in Sinoe County last year have been convicted by jurors at the Second Judicial Circuit Court in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County. The trial has shed light on harmful traditional practices in Liberia, advocates said.
A 12-member jury on Friday announced the seven men were also guilty of aggravated assault, criminal facilitation and criminal conspiracy. They include: Moses Solo, Teah Gmawlue, Sylvester Charty, Dennis P. Pyne, Victor Solo, Tweh Kelgbeh and Alex Karpeh.
Prosecution lawyers dropped charges against three other defendants— Marshall Gbala, Anthony Karmoh, and Swen Pyne—for lack of evidence.
The court is expected to hand down its final ruling on Monday, with a sentence likely to be announced. However, defense lawyers said they would appeal the verdict if a final verdict upholds the jurors’ verdict.
The seven men, according to the court, in December last stripped three women in Johnny’s Town in Kpanyan District’s Numopoh for being “witches” responsible for the death of a three-month-old baby who had gone missing and discovered dead.
They were put on trial by ordeal by traditionalists and announced guilty of witchcraft, according to court filing.
The story sparked out public outcry after a video in which the women were stripped went viral on Facebook weeks later. Angry mob jeered as the naked, fear-gripped and tortured women were paraded throughout Johnny’s Town.
The case first began at the Third Judicial Circuit Court in Sinoe was this year transferred to the Second Judicial Circuit Court in Buchanan due to fear of “local interference and manipulation”. Proceedings began August 12.
‘Victory for Justice’
The three victims received strong support from the civil society community, particularly women’s groups—throughout the trial.
National Institute for Public Opinion (NIPO), the Sinoe County Women Platform and the Foundation for Community Initiatives (FCI) helped make the case national and international attention. The Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection got involved, as did other concerned Liberian women and women’s organizations.
Women NGO Secretariat of Liberia (WONGOSOL) in close collaboration with NIPO and FCI pushed more at the national level. The coalition presented its position statement to the National Legislature, calling on the Government of Liberia to provide reparation for survivors, relocate and resettle survivors and transfer the case. Copies of this statement were presented to key embassies near Monrovia including the American and British embassies.
It was when the 10 defendants were arrested were made.
“This is a victory for justice,” said Loretta Pope-Kai of FCI, who was in court when the verdict was announced. “We pushed for this trial because those women could be our relatives. We cannot just sit down there and allow impunity to triumph,” she added.
“Let the message go forth: violence against women must stop. There is no hiding place for those who abuse women, those who think they can killed people’s children and go scot-free.”
Roseline Thomas Richards, Pope-Kai’s colleague from NIPO, said the verdict meant that their efforts to have the women get justice had not gone in vain. “Now, all the violators out there know that no one can underestimate the voices of women, the voices of justice,” Richards told newsmen outside the court following the announcement. “The voices of the three women cried out for justice from the first day when they where manhandled by those people. Today they got it. Today, justice remembered the women who died,” she said.
“We want to thank the women of Liberia and all those who supported the three women throughout this case.”
The case will also be remembered for one thing: it highlighted the plight of harmful traditional practice.
A 2015 report by the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights some traditional and cultural practices common to many Liberian ethnic communities have a significantly negative impact on the enjoyment of fundamental human rights. It said female genital cutting, forcible initiation into secret societies, trial by ordeal (particularly the use of “sassywood”), accusations of witchcraft, and ritualistic killings. The assessment found that “these practices have particularly affected certain groups such as women, children, elderly persons, persons with disabilities, as well as the poorest Liberians”
“This high prevalence is fundamentally why we believe that all must be done to step up the fight against harmful traditional practices,” read an editorial by NIPO and FCI one Saturday. “A critical starting point was ensuring the rule of law with particular focus on increasing access to justice for women and girls. We submit here that the verdict rendered in the Johnny’s Town Case is a landmark example!”