Letter to editor

Sierra Leone Condemns 14 to Die

1 October 2006 at 09:14 | 588 views

Dear Editor,

A government agency in Sierra Leone recently confirmed that at least 14 people are waiting to be executed, after being found guilty by the courts, of various offences. The underlying presumption here is that it was based on the rule of law - exclusively.

I ask: what if there’s more than that to any or every one of these trials and the investigations which preceded them.

What if there have been mistaken identifications or limited or no access to legal counsel for the accused? Add to these, the age-old principle of ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’.

I make these comments and pose these questions as a Sierra Leonean who has been both an observer of and an accused in the legal system; as a journalist who was often on the less savory side of litigation, to be precise.

I am not advocating the release of the accused or in anyway suggesting that they are entirely innocent. In truth, I have observed that the wording of judicial judgments draws a fine line between ‘innocent’ and ‘not guilty’, apparently giving those who have enjoyed the latter in courtroom precedents ‘the benefit of the doubt’.

In the same vein, I consider the death penalty too harsh, or just rash, in the current state of the country; especially when one considers how other arms of government perform; at least judging by the end results. I’m not keen on trading blame as a lot of lapses may be explained if not excused. Yet I won’t hesitate to call a spade what it is, especially where lives are at stake.

Even in industrialized and more scientific countries recent breakthroughs like DNA analyses have cast a huge shadow on their investigative policing and criminal prosecution, especially so-called eyewitnesses. So when it comes to capital punishment, we should stop short of carrying out the irreversible - taking a person’s life. For only then can we say “sorry, the legal system erred... you will be compensated, in the hope that you make the best of the rest of your life in freedom...while we make the needed adjustments promptly...”

I must illustrate here: I have seen so many Negroid (black) Africans here in Edmonton, Canada, who look so much like friends/acquaintances in Sierra Leone that, save their revealing a strange accent, would be very easily be mistaken - one for the other. This possibility of reasonable doubt has been with me for years, apart from my aversion to violence and worse; any form of taking away that which God has given.

Closer home: I had a schoolmate in the late 1970s, who told me his dad (then a university lecturer) was so much like the then fugitive Nigerian (Biafran) secessionist leader, Ojukwu - stature, complexion, beard and all. I won’t name names here but I recall the schoolmate saying to a bunch of us that his dad (the lecturer) was once arrested at an international airport...and had to sweat as relatives scrambled to prove mistaken identity.

Now guess what? The schoolmate’s mother ends up a lawyer in Freetown and was in the government service up to the late 1990s. Maybe the schoolmate spiced or exaggerated the incident or it may never have happened. Still, the possibility that a convicted person may be innocent has always been on my mind. This is the main reason I oppose death as punishment.

Editor, please help me pass the call to the people at Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other human rights lobbies/lobbyists in and out of the country. I sincerely hope this piece helps the cause of upholding, in its entirety, one of the basics of human rights/democracy in Sierra Leone: the Right To Life.

I may be far away but humanity, not to talk of my folks and compatriots, is always on my mind. I know it’s a tough call where there’s arson, robbery and wanton murder, coupled with the unbearable deprivation amid electricity blackouts and drinking-water shortage.

Personally, I have been on that path, as an inmate at Pademba Road Prison. It is hard enough to be detained when you know you are innocent but simply cannot prove it in court. I believe it is much, much worse when it is your life that is at stake.

But why not reflect on the huge divide in the nation during intervention and the subsequent executions? Where is Hinga Norman today? Who was FM Minah’s prime defence counsel when he was executed on treason charges in the late 1980s?

Pondering these questions might help your readers see the point of my appeal to ban the death penalty in Sierra Leone. At least that is my hope.

I pause for now.


Abayomi Charles Roberts

Photo: The author.