By Surihe Gaomas WINDHOEK Questions hang over whether a victim should really withdraw a court case against a perpetrator or not. With violent crime being an almost daily incident in the country, it seems rather strange for victims to withdraw a case against perpetrators in the first place. Yet, this trend is gradually taking root. So why are criminal cases withdrawn and settled out of court? That is the question Minister of Justice and Attorney-General Pendukeni Iivula-Ithana posed to traditional leaders at the weeklong 9th annual meeting of the Council of Traditional Leaders in Windhoek. "I have an answer based on what is happening across the country. This answer is based on the role of the victims as witnesses in chief in the criminal courts across the country," said Iivula-Ithana. In any criminal trial, it is the victim who testifies against the accused. The prosecutor then relies on the cooperation of the victim as the main witness. In most cases, it happens that victims of crime who had initially lodged a police and court case against the perpetrator, make a complete U-turn by withdrawing all the charges and dropping the case altogether. "When that witness is unwilling to testify, we find it difficult to extract the testimony requisite for the conviction. The burden of proof is one that is placed beyond reasonable doubt, which means there should be no single shred of doubt in the mind of the court when convicting," explained Iivula-Ithana. There are multiple reasons why case withdrawals are common features today. One of them is that the victim has either forgiven the accused or fears that the accused may withhold financial support to the victim - which is a dilemma in many rape and domestic violence cases. Other factors are that the victim may be "moving out of town and they think they will not have the time to come back to court", or "they have recovered the property stolen from them", stated the minister. In some cases, it is reported that there was a family gathering and the issue was solved altogether or they felt pity for the accused who may end up losing his/her job. Sometimes, the victims may not be interested in the case anymore as they were just angry at the accused's behaviour at the time of committing the offence. Iivula-Ithana is however of the opinion that there is no hard and fast rule on whether a case must be withdrawn or not. There are two ways of looking at the situation. One is that if the withdrawal opens up abuse of the legal system, then the answer is a definitive negative. "If the system breeds confidence in offenders that one may commit grievous crimes only to settle them with thousands of dollars, then the withdrawal of court cases would defeat the fundamental principles of justice, equality and freedom, as the rich would literally buy justice," explained Iivula-Ithana further. On the other hand, it turns out that certain withdrawals and out-of-court settlements are in the best interest of justice. In view of this, every case must be looked at on its own merit. "For example, the introduction of admission of guilt fines has contributed to the easing of the backlog of cases in the criminal justice system. The offender does not get off scot-free and we avoid falling into the often-quoted dilemma of 'justice delayed is justice denied','" she explained. Iivula-Ithana went on to say that both the criminal justice system and society needs to find a balance in the cases that are brought before court and those that are not. In the wake of brutal murders and violations of women and children, the public has rallied behind the call for stiffer sentences. Stiffer sentences serve as a deterrence against violence and crime, but there are other reasons why punishment is meted out in the first place. The first being to discourage potential offenders from committing crime, to rehabilitate convicted offenders and thirdly to restore the balance in society. Iivula-Ithana concluded by saying that she supports all efforts geared towards ridding the country of crime and violence. She further welcomed all debates including those on the death sentence as it offers an opportunity to gauge contemporary thinking. Yet, she added that this topic may be "contemporary today, relevant today, but maybe not tomorrow". She was speaking to traditional leaders this week on the topic: 'Withdrawal of Cases by Complainants, Settlement Out of Court and Severe Punishment for Law Breakers.'
2006-10-20 00:00:00 11 years ago