A unique criminal court in Malaysia aims to not only expedite hearings in cases related to the sexual abuse of children, but also provide a conducive and safe environment for minors to testify against sexual predators.
Malaysia's newly set up Special Criminal Court on Sexual Crimes Against Children is hearing its maiden case involving the rape of a minor from Tuesday, July 4.
Hailed by Prime Minister Najib Razak as the first of its kind in Malaysia, as well as in the wider Southeast Asian region, during its launch on June 22, the court aims to expedite criminal proceedings in cases pertaining to sexual crimes committed against children.
It also intends to spare young survivors and witnesses the otherwise protracted investigative and legal processes that often force them to relive their harrowing experiences.
Set up under the Sexual Offences Against Children Bill 2017, which parliament passed in April this year, the court will dispense justice for crimes including child pornography, child grooming, or where people in positions of trust or authority (such as family members and teachers) commit or abet such crimes.
Nabbing the predators
The rising number of reported sexual abuse cases and undercover investigations revealing the widespread practice of child sexual grooming through mobile chat apps have provoked Malaysians to demand tougher laws and action against child predators.
Based on Social Welfare Department statistics, 5,779 cases of sexual abuse against children were recorded from 2010 until 2015 with an average of 963 cases a year, while the police recorded 2,759 rape cases, incest (412 cases), molestation (1,423 cases) and unnatural sex (422 cases) between 2015 and 2016 involving victims aged 18 and below.
Malaysians were horrified last year at the revelations of Richard Huckle, dubbed "Britain's worst pedophile," who admitted to sexually abusing dozens of poverty-stricken children in the Southeast Asian nation's capital Kuala Lumpur.
Huckle, who posed as an English teacher and philanthropist to gain the trust of the children's families, is now serving 22 life sentences in Britain.
Attuned to children's needs
While welcoming the new court's formation, children's rights groups stressed that judges, deputy public prosecutors (DPPs), defense lawyers and welfare personnel should be adequately trained and qualified to interview or question child survivors or witnesses.
Sharmila Sekaran, lawyer and chairperson of the local children's advocacy group Voice of the Children (VoC), told DW that training was conducted in mid-May for magistrates and sessions court judges as well as DPPs but not defense lawyers.
Premier Najib expressed hope that through this new criminal court, child sex abuse cases could be resolved under 12 months
"I have approached the criminal law committee of the Bar Council for a meeting, for the purposes of drawing up an 'ethical practice' framework in handling cases related to sexual offences against children. From what I know, the training conducted was very preliminary; a more in-depth training would be required."
The New Straits Times quoted United Nations Children's Fund child protection specialist Selvi Supramaniam as suggesting that the government consider the ground rules adopted by the United Kingdom, such as lawyers providing a list of questions to the judges to determine if they are appropriate or too distressing for children.
A 'pilot' court
Given the short space of time between the bill's passage and the court's formation, standard operating procedures and sentencing guidelines have yet to be drafted. PM Najib had called for a working committee comprising the judiciary, the Attorney General's Chambers (AGC), the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, and children's rights NGOs to work on drafting these guidelines.
But Sekaran says that given the scale of sexual abuse against children, and low conviction rates where cases do make it to court, most children's rights groups are happy to see the passing of the bill and the subsequent setting up of the court, adding that the VoC will monitor and evaluate the court's operation and effectiveness.
"This court is, in a sense, a 'pilot' court with similar courts to be established in each of the states. I strongly suspect that now is when the hard work of learning the issues and correcting them will be done by the judiciary, the AGC and the bar association," she told DW.
The new court features a court recording transcription system, live video link, child witness screens and disabled people-friendly facilities. The VoC has also proposed a mobile child witness room (especially for larger states) so that children do not have to travel far to testify, especially since sometimes cases may not even proceed.
Experts say the correct handling of child sexual abuse cases will prove vital for successful investigation and prosecution
"It is a bit early days yet to see how the set up works. Technically, the child witness should not be able to see or encounter the perpetrator and/or the perpetrator's family. The important thing is that the rooms should cater to very young to older children and be comfortable. It does not have to be expensive," Sekaran added.
Child-friendly investigative process
Sekaran underscored the role of the police and welfare services in the process. She voiced her uncertainty over whether a child victim will be adequately supported, stressing the need for child advocates in the court process. The rights advocate also added that child witnesses too need adequate counseling and support.
Currently, survivors or witnesses are sometimes forced to relive their trauma through repetitive interviews with the police, social workers or hospitals, while some court cases take years to conclude. Premier Najib himself expressed hope that through this new criminal court, cases now could be resolved under 12 months.
Sekaran argued that education and awareness programs are vital in removing the stigma surrounding sex crimes against children. This will not only encourage victims to come forward to report the crimes, but the correct handling of such cases will prove vital for successful investigation and prosecution.
"We have to remember, most children know their perpetrator who are often family members. For instance, I'm currently working on a case where a child informed the mother but she did not believe her. Also, children need to be taught about safe and unsafe touches, or how and who and where to complain."