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Nov 11, 2016

Sexual Assault Under the Microscope; Courts Consult on Regional Guidelines

Sexual assault is a continuing terror to our societies. Unlike murder which is final for the victim if not for those left behind, and robbery, burglary and theft which assault a person but leave fewer lasting scars, victims of rape, incest and other forms of sexual assault live with these horrific events for the remainder of their lives in a very personal way. There has been concern that the justice system is not doing enough to protect these survivors and punish the offenders. The Caribbean Court of Justice and regional heads of judiciary are managing a project called JURIST, which addresses all aspects of the criminal justice system over a five-year period dating back to 2014. Today, local stakeholders were hosted in Belize City to tackle a region-wide guideline for handling of sexual assault cases, focused on balancing the system to give survivors hope for personal peace. Correspondent Aaron Humes reports from the Radisson.

 

Penny Reedie

Aaron Humes Reporting:

With nineteen million dollars in funding from the Canadian government and the goodwill of a region that has lost its collective innocence due to the daily horrors of sexual assault cases, many reported in the press, the Judicial Reform and Institutional Strengthening Project, known as JURIST, is turning its attention to solving the issue of improving justice at all levels of Caribbean society. Director Dr. Penny Reedie addressed stakeholders to open today’s meeting on forming regional guidelines for handling sexual assault cases.

 

Dr. Penny Reedie, Director, JURIST Project

“Today’s consultation is being held in partnership with the Judiciary of Belize, for which we are grateful. Your participation is critical to ensure the successful development of guidelines for survivors of sexual assault. Every day, we hear and read stories of persons who have been sexually assaulted. These cases indicate the incidence of sexual violence in our society remains a serious problem, both in terms of their number and the difficulties in bringing the perpetrators to justice.”

 

Chief Justice, Kenneth Benjamin, outlined some of the reforms in place here that it is hoped will give sexual assault complainants a greater ability to tell their story and get justice.

 

Kenneth Benjamin

Kenneth Benjamin, Chief Justice of Belize

“Setting guidelines will not cure the problem totally: there has to be an attitudinal change, and hopefully, the guidelines will set the stage for such an attitudinal change. They must be buttressed by other initiatives, and some of those other initiatives are already in place, and we are giving them time to take root. For instance, we promulgated the Criminal Procedure Rules on January eleventh, 2016; those rules must be adhered to, because they set timelines – for the first time, we have timelines in relation to criminal cases. We must also employ technology. I am happy to report that in the Family Court in Punta Gorda, we are about to install video link technology, which would allow for a witness to give evidence without actually being in the courtroom.”

 

The Chief Justice also noted plans to reform the law to reduce the burden of humiliation on victims, who must recount their stories again and again before justice is finally served, if at all. But how should media houses handle an already delicate and sensitive issue? Beyond showing respect for victims at all stages, project consultant and attorney Diana Shaw explained, the press should take more of an advocatory role.

 

Diana Shaw

Diana Shaw, Attorney/Consultant

“In the area of public education and public awareness, the press can assist in giving coverage to ensure that people understand what the actual sexual offenses are; what are the actual acts of sexual violence that they should report. The press can also encourage reporting by explaining to people what is the procedure. The first responders and persons responsible for taking reports are the Police; as it relates to children we have dual reporting, the Police and the Department of Human Services. We want to ask the press to encourage that; that in the coverage of sexual offence cases, one, especially as it regards to minors, as you have mentioned, respect the need to protect the privacy of minors; that we ensure that we don’t sensationalize issues that affect sexual assault cases, especially in regard to children, but not only in regards to children, because all victims of sexual assaults are considered to be vulnerable witnesses; they are persons that have experienced trauma. The effect of trauma is long-term, and sometimes they can be re-victimized because we are insensitive in dealing with their issues, because we want to get information.”

 

The JURIST Project team travels to Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago for successive rounds of consultations, but the final result, it is hoped, will reflect the wishes of one Caribbean Community.

 

Diana Shaw

“This is not just for Belize. The regional guidelines are for the entire CARICOM member states, so we are doing consultations in several countries. And the consultations have just now begun; this consultation in Belize is the first in a series of consultations that will be done over the next couple of weeks into months. And hopefully we will have some drafts ready for next year February, that then has to be circulated throughout the region for the Heads of Judiciary and the advisory committee and so on to comment on it, and then the final guidelines will be put in place, and then once the final guidelines are there, the countries have to then adopt them individually, and then once they have done that, they will incorporate them in their reform processes.”

 

Aaron Humes reporting for News Five.

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