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Justice for All

 

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In a West African – and even an African - perspective, Ghana stands out as a country which has achieved what many other countries can only dream of: it is one of the most politically stable countries on the continent and there are low levels of internal conflict. Ghana has had seven successive free and fair elections after 1992, and power has several times been shifted between government and opposition parties. Respect for democracy and human rights is high on the agenda, Ghana has an active civil society, the press is free, and Ghana continues to play a positive role in attempts to stabilise the political situation in neighbouring countries.

In one area however, much more could be done to respect the life and dignity of every citizen. Although the justice system in Ghana is functioning better than in many other countries, conditions for remand prisoners are appalling. About a week ago, I had the experience of visiting Nsawam Medium Security Prison, about an hours’ drive from Accra, together with Lady Chief Justice Mrs. Theodora Georgina Wood to witness the in-prison court sittings in the context of the Justice for All programme which Denmark supports. With us were also the Acting Director General of Ghana Prison Service Mr. Patrick Darko Missah, the Director of Public Prosecutions Mrs. Yvonne Atakora Obuobisa, representatives of the Ghana Bar Association, and representatives of the POS Foundation led my Mr. Jonathan Osei Owusu.

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I was not the only person who watched in disbelief when a case was heard of a man who had been 9 years on remand without trial. It turned out that the case against him was so weak that the court found no reason to continue to hold him. It was a very emotional moment when he walked out of the place that he had shared so long with fellow prisoners crammed together in cells meant for only 1/4 of the number presently held.

In another case a young girl in her early twenties dressed in prison clothes and wearing a veil explained that she had been led to a house by a man not known to her and upon arrival understood that a murder had been committed in the house. Somehow she ended up being accused of the murder and had spent 4 years on remand without trial. A year ago, she had been granted bail with 500 GHS as surety. She was not able to meet the bail condition and had to stay in prison. At the recent Justice for All Programme court sitting, she was granted bail without surety required. She seemed to be in a complete shock and unable to understand that she could leave the place. 

On that day, a total of 57 remand prisoners’ applications were filed to the court, out of which 7 remand prisoners were released, 41 on remand were granted bail, 2 were refused bail, 2 remand prisoners applications were dismissed, while 5 were referred to psychiatric treatment.

“If the system was working efficiently, we should not have so many prisoners on remand”
Since the Justice for All programme started in 2007, the share of remand prisoners in Ghanaian prisons has gone down from 40% to 13%. It is the ambition to get it down to below 10%.

This is a major achievement and a success that deserves recognition and celebration not least of the POS Foundation, which is doing a brilliant work to identify and prepare the cases before the special in-prison sittings. On the other hand, the existence of the Justice for All programme also bears witness to the fact that there are structural deficiencies in the Ghanaian justice system. As Mrs. Yvonne Atakora Obuobisa said after the sittings: “If the system was working efficiently, we should not have so many prisoners on remand”.

 

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Good governance and respect for human rights are key pillars of Danish development policy, and Denmark has supported the Judicial Service in Ghana for more than 20 years. It is our hope that the new government will show the political will not only to repair deficiencies in the existing justice system but also to address some legal reform issues which could prevent more and more prisoners being led to the already overloaded prison facilities. These issues would seem to include the introduction of community service in certain cases instead of imprisonment, the use of parole, and a reconsideration of the punishment of possession of drugs which appears to be out of proportion with the offense (a few grams of marijuana can cost the owner several years in prison).

Two strong ladies will lead the justice system in the future: Attorney General Mrs. Gloria Afua Akuffo and new Chief Justice Mrs. Sophia Akuffo. We believe that their combined efforts supported by former human rights lawyer President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo can push the system the last mile and ensure the respect for human rights also of the most unfortunate and marginalised citizens in the country.

This topic was also covered by The Daily Graphic - you can read the article here

 

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