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Sierra Leone: A horror story from court and prison

9 February 2016 at 00:39 | 2482 views

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By Oswald Hanciles, Freetown.

If you are a good Christian or Muslim, or, humanist, a chill would run through your body, you would shed tears at this:

The Sierra Leone Legal Aid Board has been formed. No, that is not why you would cry with joy.

There are amazing things happening from the Legal Aid Board’s headquarters at Guma Building on Lamina Sankoh Street, Freetown.

Literally every day, the Board is facilitating legal representation for dozens of poor people who have been, for example, detained in police cells for more than three days, sometimes, for two months, without even being indicted for any wrong doing or sent to the maximum security prison, Pademba Road Correctional Center in Freetown, and kept there for over six months, without being charged to court and when charged to court, their case would drag on for over a year, without witnesses or evidence.

The Legal Aid Board has been getting people who had been illegally detained released from police cells; getting those who have been jailed in poor conditions at Pademba Road prisons out.

And, I have seen their traumatized faces at Guma Building in downtown Freetown.. Just yesterday, February 8, 2016, I took a case of two boys detained at the CID, and I met a crowd of men and women who had just been released from Pademba Road prisons. I took photos with them. They are on my Facebook page.

They were brimming with gratitude to the Board, especially the face of the Board, the matronly, determined, intense, Mother Theresa-like Executive Director, Fatmata Claire Carlton-Hanciles. They are ready to worship President Koroma for setting up the Board. They are people with names, faces, homes.

Jacob Swaray, 16 years of age, a JSS II pupil of the Services Secondary School and Alie Mansaray, 18 years old driver; a Heng Man or substitute taxi driver of a vehicle with licence plate No AJO 141.

Both were walking from Lumley to Wilberforce. Then, several young men ran past them, panting. They were shortly followed by other young men shouting thief! thief!

They stood to watch. But, the group of pursuers then approached them and said they were the thieves who had stolen some SIERRATEL cables (SIERRATEL is the state telecommunications company). They protested. They told them if they were the thieves, they would not be standing there to be so easily caught by them. The group of young men did not listen to them. They started beating them. One of them brought out a handcuff, and handcuffed them to an electricity pole.

By about 8a.m. that morning, they were dragged to the police station at Lumley. They were detained there for two days, and on September 12, 2014, taken from the Lumley Police Station to Court No 2 in Freetown. There were no witnesses; no exhibits; so, they were sent to the maximum security prison called Pademba Road Correctional Center.

As the frail-looking Jacob Swarray told me, they were detained at Pademba Road prisons for sixteen months and 23 days. They attended court and they both chanted dates and numbers etched into their youthful brains. They attended court 20 times, they said.

The pain of luxury inside Pademba Road prisons
At the Pademba Road Correctional Center (See photo. 2011 photo by Fernando Moleres), they were put into a cell where a single master bed could barely fit (7 feet by 8 feet) with about twenty five other people.

There would be one blanket for each person to sleep on but, hardly any space for them to spread the blanket on. Inside the almost airless cell, dank during the rainy season; hot like an oven during the dry season, there was also a single bucket where they would urinate and defecate. The stench was unbearable. There was also a single bucket for drinking water with a single plastic cup used by all.

Every morning, warders would give them breakfast. A hard loaf of bread and what looked like butter, with lukewarm water they called tea. They avoided the tea, because they soon learned the milk gave them spots on their skins and stimulate unceasing scratches.

In the afternoon at about 2p.m., they would have their second and final meal, a bowl of rice barely enough to feed a four year old boy with plassas that would have no salt or maggi, and absolutely no fish. They had one luxury: they would be taken out to take their bath daily. Some of the hardened criminals snubbed that luxury of daily taking their bath, and their stench in the cell would be overpowering.

Prisoners imprisoning other prisoners inside the prison
It was these same hardened criminals (they mixed convicts, and those being tried, in the same cells, they told me) who would be the cell bullies, beating, punching, threatening, often, in full view of the warders. A notorious one was called Algassi.

Algassi even had his own cell within the prison where he would lock up other prisoners and tell them gloatingly, "bail yourself." The prisoner imprisoned would then have to find some money to bribe Algassi to be freed by Algassi. This would often happen when they would have returned from a court session, when Algassi knew that relatives would have given them some cash.

There would be hardly any visitors from outside to look at the poor conditions they live in within the prisons. The only group that would visit them would be Prison Watch but, even then, the prison wardens would stage manage their time, showcasing only the healthy prisoners who were living in specialized cells.

Alie Mansaray is a person
Strikingly handsome Alie Mansaray is 18 years of age. He was born at Wilberforce in Freetown, close to the military barracks there. He was attending primary school in 2008, at the Wilberforce Municipal Primary School. He dropped out of school at Class Four - because his mother could not afford to pay his fees. His mother, famously known as Fatou Pehpheh (because she has been a buyer and seller of red hot pepper for over twenty years) arranged for Alie to learn how to be a driver with a relative.

Alie joined this relative as an apprentice in his computer. What?

Well, he told me that the new name for poda poda or small commercial bus, is computer. After working all day, he would be taught how to drive at the Lumley Beach road at night. In 2012, he finally had learned enough. His teacher told him to get his driver’s license. It cost Le450,000. He didn’t have that money. His mother didn’t have that money. Between 2013 and 2014, Alie became a Heng Man on a taxi plying the route between Lumley and Bottom Mango, Wilberforce .

The taxi licence plate number was AJO 141. He would drive between 6a.m and 7p.m. daily. He would earn Le20,000 daily from the main driver of the taxi.

16 year old school boy detained at maximum security prison for over a year
Jacob Swarray was the boy who was just 16 years of age when he was detained at the maximum security prisons. He told me that his father used to do surgery at the military hospital at Wilberforce Barracks. He had lived at the same barracks with an uncle, called Jacob Moses Hindowa, a.k.a. Bo School.

Mamie Pehpeh: typical struggling mother
During the over one year the boys were in prison, their anguished mother and guardian, Fatou Pehpeh (pepper), had to slow down her business of buying hot pepper near the Guinea border, from Kambia district, and retailing the bags of pepper in Freetown. With her parents hailing from Kamakwei in the Northern Province but born and bred at Peacock Farm, at Wellington in the East end of Freetown, Fatou Pehpeh has been in the pepper business for years.

She would buy a bag of pepper at Kambia District for between Le50,000 and Le150,000; and would resell them in Freetown for about Le250,000 (If there is no pepper flooding the Freetown market from Kabala, in the Koinadugu District). She would make an average of Le500,000 profit in a week, sometimes in two weeks.

The money is what she would use to upkeep her home, with her five children, and Jacob Swarray, her ward. Her husband, a soldier, Corporal Hassan Mansaray, the father of four of her children, abandoned his responsibilities a long time ago. He came from Kabala just before the civil war erupted in 1991. He joined the army first as a clerk, because he was diagnosed with hypertension. Later, with the rebel war escalating, he was absorbed into the military as an infantry soldier. These are the ordinary people who have for five decades been denied Justice by the Justice-perverse system which has evolved in Sierra Leone.

President of Justice
Last year August, the Sierra Leone Legal Aid Board met with President Ernest Bai Koroma at State House. They were reminded of their mandate: to provide accessible, affordable, credible and sustainable legal aid services to indigent persons and other related matters.

President Koroma said the establishment of the Legal Aid Board is a step to ensure access to justice, and protecting the human rights of citizens of the country. He reminded the Board of its responsibility to not just inmates of correctional centers, but even to ordinary citizens to access justice.

The Legal Aid Board’s director not only gets mainly youth out of police cells and from prisons, but, she is counseling them, and finding ways and means to get them gainfully employed. She is meeting with groups of petty traders, drivers, market women, okada riders on a daily basis. There is always a buzz at her office. And, with video and still cameras rolling and flashing, making use of social media, the Legal Aid Board is revving up to talk about about the greatest hope in the people of Sierra Leone since independence in 1961.

Indeed, all human societies hinge on Justice; and once the transparent justice is shattered, society could degenerate into anarchy. Anarchy is not an abstract word in our country. For us, in Sierra Leone, the rebel war years taught us that youth denied justice can easily become gun-toting and axe-wielding rebels.

Thanks to President Koroma and the Legal Aid Board, we are now surer that Justice is being enshrined in our society.

The author, Oswald Hanciles.

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