Although Sierra Leone has been independent since 1961, its experience as a British colony from 1808 means that the official legal system is based on our own common law. However, outside of the major cities the traditional, customary law prevails; under that women’s rights are very restricted. This, coupled with the systemic rape suffered by Sierra Leonian women during the decade-long conflict, meant that a woman’s status is extremely low.

Rehabilitation efforts

Over the last six years, the country has been slowly rehabilitated. Organisations like IRC are assisting with drafting legislation to ensure that a woman is no longer treated as the property of her husband. Whilst we were there we met many women in positions of authority including the head of police training, the Registrar to the Court of Appeal and the Chief Justice. At the other end of the scale, systems had been put in place to make it easier for women to have their voice and be able to report crimes against them: Rainbo centres, the equivalent of our Haven centres, and Family Support Units (FSU), manned by specialist police officers. Notwithstanding these efforts there was still an enormous difficulty in securing any convictions: in 2007 there were only 13 nationwide, and none in the capital, Freetown.

With this as the background we were invited by IRC, supported by UNIFEM and DfID, to help devise and run a course to provide training for the Sierra Leonian police on the investigation and prosecution of serious sexual offences. It was to be a hybrid course as the police both investigate and prosecute in the magistrates’ court, much as they did here before the creation of the Crown Prosecutinon Service. The course involved training the police (FSU officers and police prosecutors) on investigation techniques, case preparation, advocacy and ethical debate.

The investigation aspect of the course was conducted by DC Lawrence, who has had many years experience in the Metropolitan Police, working with the Cold Case Sapphire Unit. Although this was the first time he has been involved in teaching such a project, he turned out to be a naturally talented trainer. The course, hosted by the Sierra Leone Police Department, ran for a week over two consecutive weeks, with 65 participants from all over the country. Most of the participants were from the FSUs, others were police prosecutors, a few police trainers and two court monitors.

No specialist prosecutors

What had struck us as a failure in the system was that although there were specialist police investigators for gender-based violence offences, there were no such specialist prosecutors when the case actually came to court. The creation of such prosecutors seemed to us to be one obvious solution to the problems of lack of resources and an impossible communications system, a suggestion welcomed by both judiciary and police.

From sceptics to enthusiasts

Each week, the course was formally opened and introductions were made to the “pro-bono trainers from the UK”. It was obvious that we were being viewed with a degree of scepticism; after all we were from a country with endless resources coming to train officers in a country with virtually none. Without actually ploughing millions of dollars into the Sierra Leone Police Department, how could we achieve anything?

As the week progressed, the feeling thawed. DC Lawrence showed them basic investigative techniques such as drawing a crime scene plan and an exhibit schedule. This made them realise that it wasn’t just a matter of money. Dr Claudius-Cole from one of the Rainbo centres gave a lecture on forensic medical examinations. Her remarkable and entertaining presentation dispelled the myth that there must be genital injury to prove rape. I discussed victim impact and special measures, case analysis and case preparation. A woman who had been a victim of a sexual offence attended and described what she had gone through in the legal process. Interestingly, one misconception was that the issue is one between the victim and the perpetrator, so that the former feels at a disadvantage because the defendant has a lawyer and she does not.

By the time the advocacy had started there was palpable enthusiasm. Each day saw an increase in numbers as further participants signed up. We were always impressed that our class had arrived, most on foot and from a journey of many miles, long before we did. They were also busy preparing their work for the day ahead (not a common sight on an advocacy course when the expectation is often simply to wing it).

Mock trial

The grand finale was the mock trial of a sexual assault case that had been forensically dissected during the week. Each person was given the role as either a prosecutor, defender, witness or juror and the case was run from start to finish regardless of errors or mistakes. This was again something of a novelty as trials are usually adjourned, often on the flimsiest excuse, many times over a period of weeks before any verdict is reached. None of the participants had been involved in a case that was heard and decided upon in one sitting.

Well earned certificates were handed out by Mr Francis Munu, Assistant Inspector General of the Sierra Leone Police. The ceremony was covered by national TV and newspapers. As trainers we were genuinely impressed by the dedication and hard work of both weeks’ students. Most of the FSU officers had had no advocacy experience whatsoever, yet many demonstrated a clear understanding of the basic principles within a couple of days. We had no difficulty in finding candidates to recommend as potential FSU prosecutors. The general feeling was that the course was a great success and planning for the 2009 course is already under way.

Stephanie Farrimond is a barrister at 18 Red Lion Court