EDITORIAL: Voices will be heard

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There was good news coming out of the post-cabinet press briefing. Cabinet has indicated that a three-member committee has been set-up to address the issue of whether a minor (person under the age of 18 years) should be able to refuse to testify and how to treat a hostile witness in cases where prosecution is deemed to be in the public interest. These are very important issues and we must commend the Cabinet for assigning a majority female committee.
The committee members are Attorney General Steadroy “Cutie” Benjamin, Minister of Social Transformation Samantha Marshall and minister of state in legal affairs, immigration and labour, Maria Bird-Browne. Having a female perspective on this committee is extremely important because for too long we allow women-centric issues to be pondered and decided upon by males. We are confident that the qualified female representation on this committee will bring the perspective necessary to the issues. This gives us the best chance at a proper resolution … or, at least, a proper recommendation.  
The issues that are before the committee members are extremely serious and important for survivors of sexual abuse. These issues have existed forever but have come to the fore after the recent discontinuation of a kidnapping and rape case against a policeman who allegedly preyed on a 13-year-old girl. The reason for the discontinuation was based on the girl’s decision that she no longer wanted to go forward with the case. And, given the lack of corroborating evidence and witnesses that would allow the case to proceed without the cooperation and testimony of the alleged victim, the case was withdrawn. The mere thought that a possible predator was set-free, because a child did not want to go through the trauma of a trial and reliving of the experience, had the nation in an uproar.
The response by Cabinet is a good first step in addressing an extremely delicate situation. It has been reported that two of the issues identified so far are how to deal with a hostile witness and if, as a minor (person under the age of 18), the complainant can decide not to testify. Just a read of those two issues have our heads hurting so there is no doubt that the committee members have a very difficult task ahead. At the core of the issues will be  weighing the rights of individuals against the “greater good” of society.  
The only solace that we can take is that we are not alone in this debate. Around the world, courts, prosecutors, victims and support services seek to find a balance. There are really only two options, either the victims testify willingly or they are forced to testify. In the first case, we salute the strength of survivors of sexual assault to face their attackers in court and survive a second assault by the defence cross examination and victim shamers. In the second case, it is hard for us to accept that a victim can be jailed for not wanting to testify and possibly becomes the victim of another assault while incarcerated.
No one wants to see a violent offender go free but at the same time, can we, as a society, further victimise the victims by locking them up? There is no easy answer but the individuals’ rights must trump all else. If victims think that they may face some type of prosecution if they later decide against testifying and just want to move on in life, then there is a greater likelihood that they will not come forward. That just adds to the long list of reasons why victims of sexual abuse are hesitant to report the assault.
As we have stated before, the solution to this seems to lie in the quality of the investigative work along with the protection and support systems available to victims. For example, the police need to dig deep in their investigations to unearth physical evidence and witnesses if there are any that can support the victim’s version of events. That will cause less of the burden to be placed on the shoulders of the victim.  As well, the justice system could implement a ‘rape shield law’ that limits the ability to introduce evidence, or cross-examine sexual assault complainants, about their past sexual behaviour.
The time to trial is also a key factor in the whole support system. It seems that the longer a trial takes, the greater the trauma for the victim. The more anxiety, the more sleepless nights, and the greater chance for intimidation. 
A report on clinical work at the Haven sexual assault referral centres in London noted that “relative to other traumatic events, such as natural disasters and road traffic accidents, people who experience rape and sexual assault have been found to have high prevalence rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); We know that traumatic experiences can have an impact on how we retain, store, process and retrieve memories and a profound impact on how we feel able to engage with the world in the aftermath.”  (We will host the report on antiguaobserver.com if you are interested – you should be.)
We will not even pretend to be experts in this field but as we said before, something just doesn’t feel right about what exists today. It is good to see that the Cabinet has decided to address the issue after the public roared and let a collective disapproval echo through the land. We wish the committee members all the best in the tough task they have been assigned.
We invite you to visit www.antiguaobserver.com and give us your feedback on our opinions.

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