November 24, 2005
Put your hand in hot oil: on trial in Liberia
By Katharine Houreld
SANOYEA TOWN, Liberia (Reuters) - Two months ago, Peter
Yah's hand was plunged into hot oil after he was accused of
previously detained over the robbery, but there was not enough
evidence to prosecute them.
Their accuser demanded the men undergo trial by ordeal -- a
practice in which guilt is determined by exposing the suspects
to acute pain and interpreting their reaction.
If there is no injury, or if the wounds heal quickly, the
accused is deemed innocent.
"The sassywood man put oil on the fire, said we should put
our hands inside and when I put my hand inside I touched the
bottom of the pot and I burned," Yah said.
Sassywood is the name given to the man who oversaw the
ordeal -- a cross between a witchdoctor and a judge.
"I put my hand in there four times. I was afraid and I just
wanted to be free without a problem," Yah added, his fingers
still puffy and shiny pink.
Weeping sores have formed around Yah's nails and he cannot
fully straighten his fingers or make a fist. He has not yet
returned to school because he cannot write.
Trials by ordeal have been banned in this West African
country but many people do not know they can refuse to take
In a land where the justice system is in shambles after 14
years of on-off civil war and decades of corruption, where
police regularly demand bribes and remote villages are often
several days journey from the nearest courts, the brutal system
fills a legal vacuum.
Liberia's infrastructure was devastated by the conflict,
which killed around 250,000 people. The fighting ended when
former President Charles Taylor, a one-time warlord, went into
exile in Nigeria in 2003.
Former World Bank economist Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has just
been elected president in the first vote since Taylor left,
becoming Africa's first elected woman head of state.
A Harvard-trained economist, Johnson-Sirleaf has vowed to
use her technocratic skills to rebuild Liberia.
In the once-prosperous country, most people struggle to
survive on less than $1 a day and many have been traumatized by
the conflict, fought mainly by young fighters high on
amphetamines and marijuana. During the war, painful death and
mutilation became everyday affairs.
Although prisons are bursting with inmates and some people
have been incarcerated without trial for years, judicial reform
is low on the list of most people's concerns and the issue was
largely absent from the election campaign.
Diplomats say reforming the bloated and inefficient justice
system will be one of the challenges facing Johnson-Sirleaf,
known as "Iron Lady" or "Mama Ellen."
In the meantime, many local chiefs prefer using trial by
ordeal because it produces quick results. The practice is most
common in central villages, like Sanoyea Town and neighboring
Jagba Town, where there were several cases last month.
"More than 10 people had to put their hands in hot oil,"
said Daniel Mbonah, 28, who sells fuel. "If you are innocent,
you will not be hurt," he said, as bystanders nodded agreement.
Around 40 percent of Liberians are animists, with a similar
proportion of Christians, many of whom would also profess
beliefs in ancestral spirits.
At the port in the capital Monrovia, some laborers had also
experienced trial by ordeal.
Maxwell Clinton, a 25-year-old casual worker, said he had
been burned with a hot blade by accusers who wanted to
determine who had stolen their money.
"They can put a hot cutlass against you, but for me it felt
cool like water," he said.
The man who had stolen the money refused to undergo the
test, he said, making it easier to identify the culprit.
The United Nations human rights office tasked with
investigating such cases said it had inadequate resources and
was often unable to travel to far-flung villages to question
witnesses because of bad roads or fears about security.
Adam Abdelmoula, a U.N. human rights official in Liberia,
said his office received about one report per month of trial by
ordeal, although they had not yet confirmed any.
"The people who do this kind of witchcraft are powerful
locally, so people fear them," he said. "It's hard to find a
victim, a perpetrator or a witness."
He said there were reports of people being forced to eat
poisonous fruits, jump into fires or have a hot knife placed
upon their skin. No statistics are available and the police say
they have no jurisdiction over the issue.
Yah, who managed to stay at school during the years of war,
approached the Foundation of International Dignity (FIND), a
charity which offers legal aid, after he found his injuries
prevented him from resuming classes.
"It is against fundamental human rights, the constitution
and societal norms," said Rosetta Jackollie, a legal adviser
for the aid group.
"No one can be forced to do this, but since a lot of people
are illiterate, they don't know their rights."