She wore an intricately woven blue dress, fresh black high-heels with a matching scarf tied to keep her long braids away from her face. She was careful not to muss her outfit and avoided the shallow puddles as she walked through Accra-Central police station’s rain dampened courtyard. Her wardrobe was no accident as she had been rehearsing this day for months. She inspected the line-up of men against the wall then stopped. Her arm raised, hand trembled slightly and finally came to rest on one of their shoulders.
“How do you know this man?” asked the police officer in charge.
“He is the one who attacked me,” she said. Her eyes now fixed on a face she had perhaps seen in dreams nearly every night since.
The young man refused to meet her stare. He was smaller than the other suspects, barefoot and marked with with a diagonal scar across his nose. He was the sixth in a row of ten. Each man chained by their wrist to the one next to them with the entire group flanked by officers holding clubs and well-worn AK-47s
“Do you know her?” The officer asked.
“Daabi,” replied Scar, choosing to answer in Twi a question he was asked in English.
“No? You don’t remember me? Liar, you came in the house where my children sleep and you raped me.” Her voice raised but didn’t crack as her hand remained firm on his shoulder.
Scar muttered something inaudible and hung his head toward the dirt between his toes.
An officer marked the accused man’s number down on a form affixed to a clipboard and handed it to her. She took it in her right hand and kept her left in place. After a few moments tension she let go, signed her name and walked away.
The woman in blue was the first to identify him and there would be more. In total, seven people, three women and four men, accused Scar of perpetrating acts of violence against them. The men he remembered and admitted to robbery at gun point. When the women approached he stared at the ground and offered monosyllabic denials. When the procession ended, victims disappeared into the crowd while Scar and the others were hustled back to their cell.
“We understand it’s not the best way to do this but we don’t have the means for more complicated options,” said police spokesperson K.W. Kuffour. “The victims are kept safe when they come to identify their attackers.” However, no system is perfect and police admit safety is never guaranteed.
In the west, there is a barrier. A one-way mirror separating the accuser and the accused. The suspects are marched into a dark room with bright lights shining in their eyes. They stand against a wall and wait. They wait for the someone they can’t see to identify them, or to be set free. The process is cold, anonymous and institutionalized. In Ghana, this is not the case. The ritual puts victim and alleged assailant face to face. Close enough to hear the other’s breath and remember the last time they met. This method presents critical concerns and unique opportunities. The victims become vulnerable once outside secure police compounds, yet many describe the experience as empowering. “I knew he’d be there and I had to be there to,” said the woman in blue. “He knows my house, but I’m not afraid anymore.”
Scar was in custody on charges unrelated to the crimes he was identified for in the queue. Police caught him after he snatched a man’s cell phone in the Nima district of Accra. Nearly all of his line-mates were arrested on similar offenses. Every few months, district police stations advertise an upcoming public identification and empty the cells of petty offenders. The event attracts a large crowd of on-lookers, accomplices, victims and family members on both sides of the law. Suspects are chained together and organized in single file. One-by-one victims walk the line and search for the person they say violated them. The resultant verbal confrontations are explosive and armed officers watch closely to ensure hold this demonstrative form of justice doesn’t boil over. The spectacle itself is known as an “identification parade” and it nearly always ends in a circus.