National Geographic : 1935 Nov
OPEN-AIR LAW COURTS OF ETHIOPIA With Illustrations from Photographs by Harald P. Lechenperg IN THE accompanying series of unusual photographs (pages 634-646) Mr. Harald P. Lechenperg* depicts life in some of the informal Ethiopian and Eri trean law courts. With unusual photo graphic technique, he has caught the facial expressions and gestures when these sub jects were unaware that a European ob server, with a camera, was anywhere near. Ethiopia has its Supreme Court, which today still passes judgments according to the laws of Solomon. This Court has juris diction in all important cases, such as those which involve murder or inheritance dis putes. After it come the district law courts, which try more petty cases. Their judges are chosen for the most part from among city and town officials, in whom the Gov ernment vests power to administer justice. Such officials may, in turn, delegate judicial powers to two worthy inhabitants as as sistants. These "courts" use no regular court building, but meet for trials on any con venient street corner or village plaza. There, like shopkeepers or street peddlers, they may sit down and wait for cases to come. Because of the incessant haggling common in all Ethiopian trade transactions, these street courts seldom have to wait long before litigants appear. TO TRIAL BY CHALLENGE Any citizen who feels he has been wronged may demand that his aggressor go with him to the nearest judge. Such a challenge is usually accepted at once, as the people seem to enjoy litigation. Should an alleged wrongdoer refuse, a plaintiff may go to the judge, who will then assign two stalwart citizens to fetch the other party, by physical force if need be, in the interest of "ethics." Accuser and accused each has the right to give a detailed account of his case; to bring all witnesses to the spot who may help verify his statements; and also to question such witnesses. He who, for any reason, will not conduct his case alone may take a lawyer; many self-made lawyers, * See "With the Italians in Eritrea," by Mr. Lechenperg, and "Traveling in the Highlands of Ethiopia," by Leo B. Roberts, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, September, 1935; and "Life's Tenor in Ethiopia," by James Loder Park, June, 1935. listening eagerly and freely commenting on the case, are always found in street crowds, attracted by these open-air courts. The noisy, free-for-all courts permit end less oratory, on themes relevant and ir relevant, in which both plaintiff and de fendants may also distinguish themselves. Speeches may dissect any topic, from pri vate scandal to the Nation's gravest foreign affairs. Hence a visit to such courts is, for the Ethiopian, not only amusing but also a source of political instruction. JUDGES' FEES PAID FROM WAGERS Another reason for the popularity of these law courts is that here the native passion for gambling is officially linked with the search for truth and justice. Either or both plaintiff and defendant, when he has made a statement, may lay a bet that he is right, and that the court will so find. Half a sheep, a pound of flour-even a white horse-may be wagered, depending on the importance of the dispute. If one litigant offers such a bet, the other can only "take the bet," or else retract his own statement and thus lose the suit. Often, in the end, these bets are worth more than the trifling object which started the quarrel. Judges in these street courts receive no salary; they live solely from the proceeds of wagers. Whoever loses must pay their fee, and the judges seem to earn a good living, as some have large houses. In cases where decisions cannot be given immediately, as when distant witnesses have to be called or special inquiries ar ranged, plaintiff and defendant may be confined in the same room until the end of the trial. In some districts it is also customary, during the trial, to tie both parties together by their garments, or to fasten a debtor to the creditor with a small chain until a ver dict is reached. Should a litigant lose, yet not be able to pay his bet, he must remain in the house of the judge until payment is made. This confinement may last for months; fear of such imprisonment seems a deterrent to excessive betting. At most of such courts the crowd seek ing justice is so large that trials are held daily, without interruption, from 9 o'clock in the morning until 5 in the afternoon.