JUBA, South Sudan – To fight a backlog of court cases in this poor and rural country, South Sudan plans to introduce mobile courts, a response to criticism that that some defendants have languished in prison for five years without trial.
Chief Justice Chan Reech, who announced the new initiative this week, said that police often fail to fully investigate reported crimes, making it impossible to bring prisoners before a judge.
"In some places that I have visited, I found people languishing in the prison for something like three years without a formal charge," Reech said Tuesday.
In a June, Human Rights Watch issued a report that found that prisoners in South Sudan were often detained arbitrarily, often not charged with crimes and frequently not provided with lawyers for their defense. The report said some prisoners were detained for up to five years without trial.
Reech said the problem was due to a lack of judges and judicial infrastructure. South Sudan — the world's newest country — has only 120 judges to serve a population of more than 8 million, said Reech, the country's first chief justice.
"If you go to the countryside, there are no formal courts. There are no buildings like this," he said from a hotel in the capital city. "And I said, 'If we wait for these courts to be built it will take generations.'"
South Sudan peacefully broke away from Sudan last year, the culmination of a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of war. South Sudan, which is mainly populated by black Africans, maintained that leaders in Khartoum, the capital of the mostly Arab and Muslim country of Sudan, neglected funding for core government functions like schools, medical facilities and roads.
Reech said the Ministry of Justice plans to launch the mobile courts initiative — a traveling band of police officials, judges, and ministry attorneys — in a couple of weeks.
Human Rights Watch said when it launched its report that an effective justice system "is a fundamental building block for establishing rule of law and accountability."
Reech said the mobile courts are a step in the right direction.