Mothers have been warned by a senior judge from Sierra Leone to be ‘doubly careful’ about the safety of their daughters. They should be ‘less trusting’ of others and should ‘prod on with love’ if they notice any change in their children, to find out the reason for the altered behaviour. This might help avert would-be rapists. Judge Reginald Fynn made these comments after finding a man guilty of raping a six-year-old who had been left in his care by the girl’s mother.
This is the first time I have read judgment in a rape trial heard by the High Court of Sierra Leone. There are several ways in which it is different from cases in other jurisdictions involving child rape or ‘defilement’ as it is sometimes called, and some of these differences are worth pointing out.
The first relates to terminology of the crime, presumably used because it is the language of the legislation. Accused, Ibrahim Lahai, was charged with ‘one count of sexual penetration’ of a child aged six at the time of the alleged offence. Nowhere in the judgment on conviction or sentence can I find the words ‘rape’ or ‘defilement’. Reference by the judge throughout is to ‘sexual penetration’ and the relevant legislation regulating sexual offences.
There is one place at which the judge points out that the accused was ‘violated in the sanctity of her home’, but that is the only time that the court deviates from ‘sexual penetration’.
The accused, Ibrahim Lahai, pleaded not guilty. The child he allegedly raped was called PQ by the court. She was still at nursery school at the time of the crime. She lives with her mother and sisters in Freetown. As is so often the case, she and her family knew Lahai. He was a customer of her mother, and he lived nearby.
One day in August 2015, the mother went to the market, and asked the accused to take care of PQ while she was gone. According to PQ, while they were alone, Lahai asked that she go with him behind the house and ‘do finger finger’. She refused, even when he said he would give her biscuits and money to go with him. He then raped the child, and said she would die if she told anyone what had happened.
The child’s mother, who cooks and sells food, said the accused came to the house to buy rice. She explained that she needed to go to the market and asked if he would look after PQ. When she came back, she found the child ‘look sad’. She asked what was wrong and PQ, in the presence of Lahai, said there was nothing wrong.
Because of heavy rain it was a couple of days before she was able to bath the children. She noticed blood on PQ and found blood in her bed as well. The child then told her mother what had happened, and a medical examination supported the child’s version.
Though the accused initially pleaded not guilty, during questioning in court a different story emerged. He said the version of PQ was correct: they had 'sexual intercourse' on the veranda. Why did he 'have sex' with her? ‘It is the work of Satan,’ Lahai replied.
The court found there was no issue about identification since both the mother and the child knew the accused well. PQ had been an excellent witness and the judge accepted her version without reservation.
On the behaviour of the accused, the judge said while the mother thought he was a friendly customer, being helpful, he was ‘merely on the hunt’ and intent on preying sexually ‘on the innocent girl child of the house’.
While the accused initially denied any wrong-doing, he later contradicted this. ‘It is not uncommon for a person who has faltered, fallen short or committed a crime to lay the blame at the foot of “the devil” or “satan”,’ said the judge.
The court added a postscript of the kind I have not seen before, and that some readers may feel just stops short of blaming the mother in this case. The judge said he wanted to sound a note of caution. It was no excuse (for the accused) that the mother might have been careless or taken a risk by leaving PQ with Lahai. ‘However, mothers (are) called upon to be doubly careful. They must be less trusting, and must prod on with love when they notice a change in a child, any child, but especially a girl child. That extra care may, in many a case of this kind, avert the completion of the crime by depriving the would-be perpetrator of the opportunity to commit this heinous crime.’
Another feature of the case that might be strange to readers from outside Sierra Leone is that the law provides a sentence for child rape of ‘a maximum of 15 years’. That is extraordinarily light given the sentences now regularly passed elsewhere, for example in South Africa, where a life sentence may well be handed down in such a case.
The judge said he was aware that the child was very young, that she was violated in her own home, that she suffered physical, psychological and emotional trauma. But the aim of punishment being rehabilitation and correction was also ‘ever present’ in his mind, and he believed the accused should have a chance to ‘return to society as a useful citizen’. He therefore sentenced Lahair to 10 years.
There were also other issues I found puzzling. For example, the case was heard in the high court of Sierra Leone, but the presiding judge was Reginald Sydney Fynn, a well-known judge of appeal, who appears to have sat on his own in the high court’s criminal division.
It is also confusing that the court did not have a system of identifying the date on which the matter was heard and the date on which judgment was delivered. All that is available is the case number: 263/2016 and another date, probably the date that judgment was delivered, 24 October 2019. This is a pity because it is useful to be able to say for sure the date/s on which a trial was finalised, and the gap between that date and the date on which judgment was delivered.