The externs in professional mode

Monday, 22 October 2012

2 Weeks in Kenema

By Alimamy Koroma, Summer Extern, Timap for Justice

I am having the best college vacation ever thanks to a four week internship with Timap for Justice in Kenema. This opportunity was made possible by Advocaid to my very self and two other law students (who are interning in other parts of the country with different organizations) from FBC in appreciation of our excellence and dedication during a 10 month externship program. The rationale is to broaden our experience into practical legal work and also expose us to the considerable challenges faced by ordinary Sierra Leoneans in the provinces in accessing justice.

Timap for Justice is a leading human rights organization committed to providing concrete and practical solutions to justice problems confronting ordinary Sierra Leoneans. Started in 2003, the organization has through the use of paralegals to compliment for the nationwide shortage of lawyers, been largely successful in resolving disputes through mediation and advocacy. It also helps people navigate the often complex legal system.

Now nearly two weeks into my internship in Kenema, I am beginning to have a better understanding of the justice issues confronting local people, their causes and how they could be possibly addressed. I have also come to like Kenema, a city which before now I had never visited and after two weeks of residence I am now even considering to be my workplace after studies!

In the course of my internship duties over the past two weeks, I have spent countless hours in police, prison and court mostly giving basic legal advice and assistance, delivering legal education, supporting accused persons through the court process, interviewing and counseling clients, and also learning the intricacies of court and criminal procedures. I have been inundated by what I have seen thus far. Early signs indicate that while the problems of corruption, police brutality, lengthy trials, shortage of lawyers, institutional incapacity, are common problems affecting the judiciary throughout Sierra Leone, they are even more pronounced and entrenched in Kenema. Freetown for all its problems still enjoys a relatively better monitoring system of judicial proceedings, higher literacy rate and a better consciousness of human rights issues among her residents; factors conspicuously lacking in Kenema. Further compounding the justice problems here is the adoption of a dual legal system as provided for by section 170 of the 1991 constitution and the revised Local Courts Act of 2011. These provisions confer limited civil and criminal jurisdiction on local courts to handle issues relating to customary law. They are presided over by local officials and pursuant to section 15 of the said act legal practitioners are barred from appearing before them. In that a substantial part of customary law often makes a butchery of the principles of natural justice and coupled with the apparent lack of a clear understanding among the people on what courts to take their cases, the result has been a deep confusion resulting in grave unfairness and dissatisfaction. Section 29 0f the Local Courts Act 1963 however makes provisions for persons aggrieved by the decisions of local courts to appeal to the District Appeal Court which is chaired by a Magistrate.

I have also been profoundly disturbed by the frequency of certain crimes in Kenema, especially those affecting women and children. Half of all the cases in High Court are sexually related offences  including unlawful carnal knowledge, indecent assault, abuse of young girl, rape, sodomy etc.  And when one considers the fact that victims and their parents are often unwilling to pursue these cases, preferring instead to make compromises with perpetrators one begins to have a feeling that the figures reaching court might greatly underestimate the realities.  
Furthermore, there is unquestionably a growing awareness that such crimes are punishable and should not be settled out of court, yet many men clearly influenced by traditional values of chauvinism continue to consider the involvement of human rights organizations or even the police as intrusion in to their “properties”. Regrettably also, the Family Support Division of the Police which has the mandate to investigate and prosecute such issues, still has a long way to go in terms of competence and training in handling the cases. This is especially so when one considers the emotional trauma victims of such abuses usually suffer, which may range from social stigma in the case of rape and even homelessness in the case of domestic violence.

My other disappointment so far springs from the ill treatment of persons facing criminal proceedings. Most of my clients complain of being beaten by police during arrest and I am a witness to the unbearable filth and starvation in these detention facilities. At present, there is an outbreak of a contagious skin disease in the male prison, thereby denying me the opportunity to render sentenced male prisoners any legal support or education. The fact that there are no separate detention facilities in police for women and children probably sums up the point that Kenema lacks way behind when it comes to the treatment of detainees.

Despite the aforementioned difficulties, I have to say there have also been some high points in these remarkable two weeks of internship. The extraordinary willingness of some police officers and court officials to serve in the face of low salaries is one worth mentioning. Two standing examples are the Head of Interpol at the Kenema Police Station and the presiding Magistrate. The latter,  a graduate of FBC himself,  fully understands the difficulties law students face and reflects my idea of what values an officer of the court should espouse-humility, professionalism and selflessness. The highest point for me though has to be the immeasurable feeling of accomplishment I enjoy every time I help someone accesses justice whether it is helping release a juvenile unduly detained by police or explaining to unrepresented female prisoners what to expect in court.

I have a sense that given the alarming shortage of lawyers in the provinces (Actually only five based in the whole of Kenema),  paralegals and of course law students if supported would play an important role in reducing the justice problems of our people outside Freetown, which by the way comprises more than eighty percent of the population. And history has painfully taught us of what happens when injustice is allowed to reign. We surely do no not want to walk that brutal path of civil war again. Do we?

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