Zanzibar. Activists working to protect children from sexual abuse here have intensified their calls on the archipelago’s law enforcement authorities to prioritise electronic evidence while investigating sexual assault cases, saying the approach will see many victims get justice.
The activists reiterated their call on March 15, 2023, during a workshop to commemorate the 2023 International Women’s Day, celebrated worldwide under the theme DigitALL: Innovation and Technology for Gender Equality.
Ms Asha Abdi is the chairperson of the Tanzania Media Women’s Association – Zanzibar (TAMWAZNZ).
She explained during the workshop her organisation organised that the children who suffer from sexual assaults fail to get justice because of difficulties existing in collecting evidence.
“During the collection of evidence, a child may admit today but deny tomorrow thanks to threats and intimidation,” said Ms Abdi. “But if we record [electronically] this child’s first attempt to testify, this problem becomes solved.”
Violence against women and children is rampant in Zanzibar. For instance, the Office of the Chief Government Statistician reported on January 17, 2023, that incidents of gender-based violence in Zanzibar increased from 1,222 in 2021 to 1,360 in 2022.
Despite the big problem, Zanzibar fails to convict many perpetrators of sexual assault against children under the pretext that no evidence exists that would allow judges to do so, something activists think can change if police record evidence electronically.
During the workshop, a law lecturer from the State University of Zanzibar (SUZA), Dr Sikujua Omar Hamdani, said that although Zanzibar’s laws allow investigators to collect evidence electronically, the level at which that has been done is unsatisfying.
The Zanzibar Evidence Act of 2016, which came into force on January 18, 2017, creates a special regime of rules for the admission of electronic evidence. The rules provide minimum certainty in the admission of electronic records.
“The law is evident that electronic evidence can be used during investigations,” Dr Hamdani said. “But this is done at a very unsatisfying level. It needs to change because it ensures that a victim gets justice.”
She said that the usefulness of electronic evidence comes when the victim starts receiving threats to force them not to testify to investigators, forcing them to deny they were abused after having first admitted.
“The usefulness of electronic evidence cannot be overemphasised,” Dr Hamdani said. “If we are interested in ensuring perpetrators of these actions get the punishment they deserve, our law enforcers need to be serious at gathering electronic evidence.”
Hafidh Mohamed is a secretary of a committee to combat abuse against children from the Kaskazini Unguja region who underlined the importance of electronic evidence, saying it will save investigators the trouble of having to interview the victims more than once.
“Naturally, a child will give you new and contradictory details every time you question them,” Mr Mohamed said during the workshop. “And you can’t blame them for that. But we can use existing technology to address that challenge.”
Speaking during the workshop, a cybercrime officer from the Police Force – Zanzibar, Issa Mohamed Salum, said while the law allows investigators to collect electronic evidence, police are yet to be trained on how to do that.
“We have not been trained on collecting electronic evidence,” Salum said. “We still document victims’ explanations on paper. But if prosecutors want audio-visual evidence, we can collect one, but there are no guidelines yet.”
Sara Omar Hafidh is a Vuga Regional Court Magistrate overseeing several sexual assault cases against children. She explained that despite its usefulness, electronic evidence has limitations.
“It could be the voice of the victim, but what if the victim says the voice is not his or hers,” Hafidh asked rhetorically. “In that situation, a judge would still be unable to make a judgement.”
“But we have started using the approach,” she added. “Not to a large extent, but we have started using it. There will be more improvements and fewer challenges as we go ahead.”
Zanzibar is not the only country whose jurisdiction allows electronic evidence in sexual assault investigations. Other countries include India, the United States, and Canada, to name but a few.
Najjat Omar is The Chanzo’s journalist based in Zanzibar. She is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.