Blog, Gambia, The Gambia

Gambian Courts And Excessive Fines

Hassan JallowTwo news articles  caught my attention in the Standard Newspaper this week.

“A high court judge has recently sent [two senior secondary school teachers], to six weeks imprisonment for defaulting in payment of a five-million dalasis suit by Patience Sonko – Godwin, a historian.”

Within the same week also, one Omar Touray (of Gunjur – just for clarity’s sake 🙂 was charged with ‘seditious intent’. He “was bailed with the sum of 1 million dalasi which could be in form of property within Greater Banjul Area and two sureties.”

Why do we have such obnoxious and outrageous fines/bail sums in a country where over 98% of the population will live their entire life, with all of life’s expenses considered, and never consume a million dalasis worth?

If crimes have to be proven beyond reasonable doubt for a guilty verdict to be handed down, would it not make sense to also have sentences/fines that are reasonable; or at least reflect the realities of the people? It is absolutely ridiculous to have our courts hand down such exorbitant amounts as fines for people they know full well can never afford to pay the fines, EVER! It’s like sentencing a person to death for reckless driving that claimed the life of a squirrel.

Now for the overly sensitive, I am not saying that intellectual property should not be protected, but I will bet that the combined revenue from the said publication in the case of Ms Sonko – Godwin does not amount to five million. And yes, I do have a lot of respect for the author and we all owe her a debt of gratitude for her service to the country from which we all benefitted over the course of our academic lives, but this is not as much about her and her work as it is about our justice delivery system.

In 2016, in a similar lawsuit involving the same author; two other teachers were found guilty, of plagiarism and had to offer a public apology. “The court also impounded all the copies of the said books with a D50, 000 nominal damages against the defendants. Mrs Sonko-Godwin was also awarded D40, 000 costs against the defendants.”

Now the question is what changed in the space of two years? How is this most recent case different from the 2016 case?

Charging public school teachers five million dalasis as fine and we think that is okay? Absolutely outrageous, that’s what it is, yet we remain largely unconcerned about it. If we truly want a prosperous nation, every facet of our society needs revisiting and some serious assessment of issues that are utterly unacceptable but somehow normalized in our everyday lives.

Politics and politicians are not the be-all and end-all of all that affects our lives, but it seems we’re caught in a trance of obsession with politics and politicians while everything else around us is dysfunctional.

In the case of Omar Touray (of Gunjur), how much of a flight risk is he? What will be the most negative consequence of him taking flight and who will that impact? Based on that assessment, his bail was set to be “a property” worth a million dalasis, meaning someone will lose their home should he take flight. Again, I am not condoning his actions/words for they are much more than ‘insulting’ the president but whatever the charges are, is it reasonable to levy such a fine?

The sentencing judges from now on may just as well say to the defendants, with a sneer; “I have an option of a fine for you but I will not state it because I know you cannot afford it, so I am taking that option off the table and sending you to jail because you are too poor. Mwah ha ha ha!”

Even more ridiculous is the jail term to be served in default of the payment; a mere six months. You’d think for that sum, default would mean at least a couple of years behind bars. It simply does not make sense.

Maybe our learned friends in the legal fraternity can help shed more light on this process and what it entails but for the layman like myself, it is mind boggling trying to make sense of this.

Our laws, crime, and punishment should take into account our value systems, beliefs, economic realities and a whole host of other factors unique to our situation. I hope the newly constituted commission for constitutional review will take a wholesome look at our society and draft a new constitution accordingly; otherwise we will be in for a long ride.

Judges on the other hand are at liberty to use their discretion in interpreting the law; they too need some serious grounding in our value system if staffing the bench with natives should have any meaning.

And while at it we need to revisit the remnants of the colonial ‘regalia’ assigned as a costume for our legal fraternity, from the Bar to the Bench; they look ridiculous. No disrespect!

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