In Sri Lanka it is taking as long as six years to prosecute criminals who abuse children, a delay that threatens to further traumatize thousands of children whose cases are stuck in the courts, according to experts.
Officials from the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Sri Lanka told IRIN as many as 4,000 child abuse cases are before the country’s 34 high courts (the second highest level of courts).
The average wait time for a ruling is six years based on a 2010 UNICEF analysis of backlogged cases, and can go up to eight years, according to local NGOs.
Delays include police taking a long time to complete investigations or sending incomplete files, bottlenecks in the attorney-general’s office in clearing cases to proceed to hearings, and an overload of all types of cases before the courts, said UNICEF spokeswoman Suzanne Davey.
As of late 2010, there were over 650,000 cases of all types being heard in Sri Lankan courts, according to the Ministry of Justice. That same year the government launched a US$3 million project to set up 60 new courts to help clear the backlog.
Experts warn such delays are “devastating”, especially for the youngest plaintiffs.
“Case delays lead to the further victimization of those children who have already suffered… because of abuse and exploitation. Children caught up in the lengthy justice process are voiceless and will lose out on the precious years of childhood,” said Caroline Bakker with UNICEF.
Visakha Tillekeratne, with the local women’s rights group Justice for Victims, pointed to the alleged rape of a 10-year-old in the southern district of Matara where a year later, investigations are still ongoing.
“The girl’s parents are asking us how they can continue with the case without any [judicial] recourse,” said Tillekeratne.
Bakker told IRIN that such delays can leave the victims even more traumatized and stigmatized, especially when the accused are released on bail. “They have no means of redress for their injustice. Meanwhile, their offenders remain free.”
According to the national police’s most recent data, there were 334 reported cases of child abuse in 2010, of which by year end, 269 were still being investigated.
In January 2012, UNICEF, along with the attorney-general’s office, Ministry of Justice and the Department of Police, launched a programme to hasten the processing of child abuse and rape cases that has trained 900 government workers as of August.
The participants - who included police, probation officers and people who investigate child labour claims - received information about conducting forensic investigations, gathering evidence for a legal report, and how to work with victims of abuse as well as prevent further exploitation. Training varied from a single day, to one day per month for 12 months, and there were other options.
The goal is to get a hearing for all child abuse cases within six months from the time they are reported to the police, as of 15 October 2012, said police spokesperson Ajith Rohana. “We are already testing a pilot programme in high courts in six [of the country’s 25] districts,” Rohana told IRIN.
Since 2005, the Police Department has also set up 43 district-level child and women “protection bureaus” staffed by specially trained officers who work only on cases involving abuse of minors and rape. In addition, every police station nationwide has at least one dedicated officer trained to handle such cases.
Over the past five years, there has been a 20 percent increase in reported cases of rape of victims of all ages, which Rohana links to the special bureaus.
UNICEF’s Davey warned it is still too early to link this increase to the new units, but said a speedier judicial process may deter crime. “There is evidence that punishment [is] an effective deterrent, should it be prompt,” she said.
According to UNICEF, over 85 percent of reported abuse cases involving children were of a sexual nature. In 70 percent of those cases, the attacker was someone known to the family versus the 3 percent of reported cases where the attacker was a stranger.
In two of the top three provinces where reported abuse was highest, attackers had often taken advantage of children left alone when their parents spent long hours working in the fields, according to the police.
Of the three most affected provinces - Western, Sabaragamuwa and North Central - the latter two include some of the country’s most agriculturally rich areas.