By Moses Sserwanga
Before the use of audio visual links, it was intimidating and traumatizing for child victims to testify in court or provide evidence in open court while facing the perpetrator (accused person)
Uganda’s justice system has registered a major milestone with the installation of modern audio- visual technology that protects child victims and witnesses when giving evidence especially in sexual abuse cases. Cases of a capital nature include aggravated defilement which is rampant in the country.
In Uganda, defilement is considered aggravated if the victim of defilement is a girl aged 14 years old and below, the offender has HIV/AIDS, the offender is the victim’s parent or guardian, and the girl has a disability. The crime of aggravated defilement carries a maximum penalty of death upon conviction.
To date the Judiciary has received from UNICEF 10 audio visual links installed in eight High Courts (Arua, Kabarole, Mbale, Mbarara, Gulu, Kampala, Jinja, Family Division) and in two Chief Magistrates (Iganga, Kabale) that has eased taking of evidence from child victims, provided protection for the child victims and resulted in more child friendly court proceedings.
Before the use of audio visual links, it was intimidating and traumatizing for child victims to testify in court or provide evidence in open court while facing the perpetrator (accused person).
With the use of audio-visual technology, children who are victims of sexual violence offences have gained confidence to testify against the accused person(s) without being intimidated or fear of retribution.
The justice actors who include Judges and Magistrates, at all levels, plus prosecution officers from the Office of the Directorate of Public Prosecution, (ODPP), have all openly embraced the new child protection visual- audio link facilities in courts of law across the country.
As a result, many children who have suffered sexual violence crimes, have managed to successfully give evidence against their tormentors in aggravated defilement cases, helping the prosecution to secure convictions and sentencing of the offenders.
How the new technology works
The audio-visual link refers to giving or receiving of evidence through electronic means without a person (this time a child victim) physically appearing in court.
Under the audio -visual link technology arrangement, children who are victims of sexual violence sit in a separate and friendly room far from the traditional court room where their suspected tormentors are and can in turn, freely testify against them by the help of installed cameras and other electronic gadgets in the court room.
This innovation is aimed at shielding children who are victims of sexual violence from secondary victimization by not facing their alleged tormentors in the same courtroom.
In order for this technology to deliver high quality results, several equipment has been deployed with the support from UNICEF and this include, cameras, network video recorders, LED displays (TVs), column speakers, amplifiers, microphones, power inverters and racks for housing the equipment.
According to the Judicature Audio-Visual Rules No. 26 of 2016 in Uganda, a person can give evidence using audio-video link technology under the following circumstances:
- For security reasons
- For safety of a witness
- When a witness lives outside Uganda
- Where it is inconvenient for the party to give evidence in open court
- For economic considerations
- Due to health reasons
Courts are further allowed to use their discretion to allow witnesses where necessary to give evidence through audio-visual link.
The benefits of Uganda’s audio-visual technology for juvenile trials
Overall, the taking of evidence by audio-visual means has facilitated speedy trials of children cases and promoted child friendly procedures when courts are handling cases involving children.
It is also addressing the problem of further traumatizing victims or witnesses in open court, including challenges related to trials hindered by geographical impediments and fears associated with testifying in person.
The technology is helping to reduce the time spent in taking evidence from witnesses which has often led to delays in the administration of Justice.
Furthermore, the technology is helping courts to ease the process of taking testimonies from vulnerable witnesses like children, the elderly, whistle-blowers and dispose of cases quickly. This has facilitated the Judiciary to deal with the perennial problem of case backlog.
However, with all the tremendous progress made to ensure that the criminal justice system in Uganda works and offers justice to child victims, there are still challenges to confront.
According to court users, some of the challenges include limited usage of the technology (a small percentage of courts) have these facilities installed, remand homes are not connected to the system and some of the child courtrooms are not furnished with child friendly equipment.
Uganda is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child ratified in 1989. The 1995 Constitution and the Children Act Cap 59, emphasize the upholding of the welfare principle. The principle provides for adherence to the best interests of the child while handling court cases involving juveniles.
UNICEF remains committed to the promotion and strengthening of the child protection system in Uganda, for children in contact with the law and juveniles to operate in the best interest of the child.
Therefore, justice for children is designed to benefit all children in contact with justice authorities to ensure that they are better served and protected.
The goal of the justice for children approach is to ensure that all children coming into contact with the justice authorities including, alleged offenders, victims, witnesses or parties to non-criminal law procedures have access to Uganda ‘s justice systems (formal and informal) and are better served and protected.
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