IN 2017, hundreds of people gathered outside a house in Katutura after hearing reports that a man living there was abducting children and dismembering their bodies.
According to news reports, police deployed 20 police vehicles and a helicopter, and ended up having to use tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. At least two people were injured in the chaos, and several police vehicles were damaged.
The rumours that led to the riot were entirely untrue.
This was not an isolated incident of vigilante action. There have been several recent reports just this year of crowds attacking or killing young men allegedly seen stealing cellphones.
Against this backdrop, the idea of making a list of sex offenders available to the public raises chilling possibilities of mob revenge.
The criminal records office of the Namibian Police already has an efficient and up-to-date system for certificates of conduct, which either confirm that the person in question has no criminal convictions in Namibia, or list that person’s convictions and the relevant date.
Given the existence of this database, it seems unnecessary duplication to construct a separate register for specific categories of crimes.
A sex offender register may infringe on constitutional rights of privacy and dignity, or constitute prohibited discrimination on the basis of social status.
Are sex offender registers effective?
No. There is no evidence that sex offender registers in other countries have reduced re-offending. Research from other countries highlights several flaws with these registers.
Revealing a sex offender’s identity can also have negative consequences for the offender’s family members who have done nothing wrong.
Instead of setting up a sex offender register, Namibia could expand on the existing system of police certificates and current rehabilitation programmes, to reduce re-offending without unleashing the possibility of mob ‘justice’.
Namibia should note the observation of a South African commentator that “a sex offender register does not prevent the commission of sexual offences. Sex offender policy issues may be implemented because they are popular, but that does not mean that they are efficient, effective or equitable. The state would do better to protect the public through legislation based on empirical evidence, while ensuring that citizens’ constitutional rights are not infringed on”.
*This article was made possible by support from the European Union and the Hanns Seidel Foundation. A copy of the article with references will be made available on the Legal Assistance Centre website at www.lac.org.na.