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Liberians in U.S. Torn Apart Over Child Rape Case in Arizona

Alvin Peabody | 8/12/2009, 10:13 a.m.

Liberians across the United States continue to express dismay at an incident involving an alleged gang rape of an eight-year-old girl in Arizona. But they contend that the case is more criminal in nature than a cultural phenomenon.

Police have charged four boys, ages nine to 14 -- all Liberian refugees -- in the case, alleging they lured the girl into a shed by promises of chewing gum on Thu., July 16, restrained her and sexually assaulted her.

The oldest boy, Steven Tuopeh, 14, has been charged as an adult with two counts of sexual assault and kidnapping. The other boys €" ages nine, 10 and 13, were charged as juveniles with sexual assault. The 10 and 13-year-olds also were charged with kidnapping, according to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office in Phoenix, Ariz. The girl is currently in the care of the Child Protective Services.

€This case has generated an enormous amount of international outrage and rightfully so,€ said Liberian-born Beatrice Teah, a nurse practitioner in Jacksonville, Fla.

€As Liberians, we€re shocked and amazed,€ Teah said. €But we shouldn€t be ashamed at all, because this is more a criminal matter than a cultural thing.€

Beverly Goll-Yekeson, executive director of the Liberian Crisis Center for Abused Women and Children, agreed.

€The very act of rape is a criminal and moral violation of the rights and privileges of that innocent eight-year-old girl,€ said Goll-Yekeson, whose group has operations in the U.S. and Liberia and has been advocating for the protection of Liberian women and girls since 2003.

She went on to describe the rape act as allegedly perpetrated by the four boys as €heinous, barbaric, and amoral and has the propensity of casting an aspersion on the status of many peaceful Liberians living in the USA and the world as a whole.€

Goll-Yekeson, Teah and 20 other Liberians also downplayed recent published reports which claimed that the act of rape is a part of Liberia€s culture.

€While it is true that the act of rape is a by-product of the Liberian civil war, it has no bearing on the culture, values, norms and traditional beliefs of the Liberian nation,€ Goll-Yekeson maintained.

In 2005, the West African nation ended more than a decade of civil conflicts, which were often marked by indiscriminate killing, mutilation and rape. Child soldiers were recruited for such crimes, sometimes while high on drugs and alcohol. Children, too, were victims of rape. Many of these children were later refugees in neighboring countries.

€That war was a total devastation and it damaged many of these children, some of whom are now in America,€ said Lasana Kamara, a co-founder of the Arizona Mandingo Association, a support organization for Liberian refugees.

€With all they have seen, then coming here, it's very difficult for them and even their families,€ said Kamara, who fled Liberia in 1992 and now works as a detention officer at the local sheriff's jail in Arizona.

Rape was outlawed in Liberia in 2006 after a law that was passed by the country's first female president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

She has sought to dispel such stigma by publicly acknowledging that she was herself the victim of attempted rape during the country's civil war. Sirleaf also planned to have officials of the Liberian Embassy in the District to work with the family and Phoenix authorities to ensure the girl's protection.

An LCC delegation also is expected to travel to Phoenix in mid-August in an attempt to assess the situation and lend support to the victim and her family. The group also plans to hold consultative workshops with Liberian communities in several states for the purpose of sensitizing Liberian women and girls on the impact of rape and abuse.

The first town hall meeting will be held in Arizona, said Goll-Yekeson.

Colonized by freed slaves from the U.S., Liberia is the oldest independent nation in Africa. It became a nation in 1847, naming its capital city, Monrovia, after James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States.