Monday, 5 November 2012
Some Memories are Forever
By Alimamy Koroma, Summer Extern, Timap for Justice/ AdvocAid
In the course of our daily lives there are certain things we see that remain etched in our minds for a very long time or sometimes even forever. During my four weeks internship with Timap for Justice/ AdvocAid in Kenema, I saw many things and for a few of them I suppose they would forever be locked in my memory. One such moment obviously is the inexpressible look of pain and agony on the faces of the family of a young driver hacked to death in the early hours of September at Blama Junction whilst on his way to work. He was hacked several times with knives and machetes and his corpse abandoned in a dustbin. His attackers had wrongly believed he was a thief and there was evidence suggesting that the man was on his way to work when he met his gruesome demise. At the time of his death, the deceased wife was heavily pregnant and there were rumors that his killers knew his identity but were taking revenge following a feud years back that had to do with a love rivalry involving one of the accused. On the first appearance of the seven accused persons, before magistrate Mohamed Stevens, hundreds of drivers flooded the courtroom apparently to show solidarity with their fallen comrade but also as one of them put it to me “to ensure that these politically connected suspects are not left off the hook for their heinous crime”.
I also cannot forget the day when hundreds of furious people had gathered at the Kenema Police station to inflict mob justice on five employees of a sham financial institution dubiously called LIFT OUT OF POVERTY. It purported to ameliorate the suffering of the people through granting of loans but on the condition that potential beneficiaries first demonstrate their ability to repay the loan by making a certain contribution for a period of time after which it would be returned to them plus their loans. The idea was the brainchild of two Nigerian 419ers who were clever enough not to surface relying on their Sierra Leonean employees to do the marketing and administration of their dubious scheme. In the first month, the supposed humanitarian financial institution kept its promise and repaid everybody what they had contributed, informing them that they were now qualified to apply for loans after demonstrating that they have a stable source of income. As you would have guessed more people fell for the scam, buying a registration form for le 30,000 and making daily contributions for the whole of August. A date was set for the formal launching of the institution and the payment of the first set of loans. Invitations were dished out almost to everybody and institution that mattered in Kenema; a huge hall was rented and bands were even hired.
To cut a long story short, the big day came and neither the Nigerians and more importantly nor the money were to be found. The previous day the Nigerian fraudsters had convinced their Sierra Leonean counterparts to withdraw all the monies from the bank and after a simple exchanges of box, they had escaped with over five hundred million Leones. Their Sierra Leonean business partners only found out what had happened when after waiting for a long time without seeing the Nigerians decided to open the two boxes and to their utter dismay found only papers and inscribed on them were the words “Sierra Leoneans say no to Exploitation”. The Nigerian con men certainly had a dry sense of humor! Hundreds of people had hence gathered at the police to inflict mob justice on the detained employees. But the police would not let anyone touch them. The few who were lucky not to have fallen for the scam labeled victims as stupid and greedy. They asked “how could anyone not have seen the handwriting on the wall? I think they certainly have a point to their argument, especially when one considers the fact that this is not the first or second time a similar thing has happened in less than three years. But again, I have always argued that ultimately part of the blame goes to the government for its failure to protect the unsuspecting masses from the hands of 419ers. The Financial Institution Act of 2011 made numerous provisions for the granting of license to financial institutions operating in Sierra Leone. But like most other acts, they were ignored. No license was issued to LIFT OUT OF POVERTY and nobody cared to ask and as always the poor had paid dearly. The detained employees who apparently had a good relationship with the police were never locked in cell; they were put in open detention and after a few days released without any charge. No explanations were given and I am still unsure whether it was the right or wrong decision.
Another permanent memory from Kenema would definitely be the sight of 15 youths hugging each other in the dock after the magistrate had discharged them of the offence of loitering. More than twenty of them had been arrested on the 13th of September 2012 between 9 am to 12 PM around “How for do park”. Those who paid bribes were immediately released and those who could not had spent nearly a week in prison on remand before their cases were finally heard. Right at the police station, I did everything to plead with the officers for their release at least on bail citing numerous legislations, but the officers would have none of it and they were subsequently charged. On the day of their trial, I managed to offer them a brief legal advice as they were all unrepresented. In particular, I encouraged them not to be frightened by the courts and also to ensure they tell their own side of the stories and cross examine the police witness. They followed my advice and it worked with the magistrate who ruled that under section 13 subsection 1 paragraph e of the Criminal Procedures Act 1965 someone can only be arrested for loitering between the hours of 6pm and 6 am. My clients were freed and no amount of words can express the delight on their faces. I felt like a champion.
Assisting a 16 Year Old Girl in Detention
And finally I can never forget FFK, the 16 year old girl I found in Kenema police cell almost dying form diarrhea or (it could have even be cholera). At the time she was the only girl in the tight and filthy cell caged with over 10 men and a 15 year old boy. Before you start asking questions, Kenema does not have a separate cell for women and children. On investigation, I learned that the cells originally meant for women and children got destroyed and now everyone is just caged together. The best they can do for women and children is to put them in open detention in extreme cases but as one officer told me after a pregnant suspect in open detention once escaped, they now hardly grant such concessions.
Part of my job was to check the detention list for the day with the lock up officer every morning to ascertain how many of my clients have been charged to court on that day, how many were released during my absence and crucially how many new suspects were brought in. I sat alongside three police officers to cross check the detention list amidst shouts from suspects, locked up few yards from me. This was usual and they would be calling to complain, or to see whether we have been able to contact their sureties or plead with their IO (Investigating officer) to consider bail or release them all together. From the corner of my eye, I thought I saw something strange, something dying. She was being dwarfed by the male suspects who were shouting for my attention. I stood before the cell bars and pleaded that they allowed the girl from the rear come in front. After a slight hesitation, they complied. I greeted her and introduced myself. She seemed very shy and reluctant to speak but I encouraged her and convinced her that I was there to help her. Then she opened up and began to tell me her story. “I am accused of stealing a wedding ring by my former employer” she said” I have been working for them as a maid for over a year and a half without pay. So I had decided to quit the job. On that particular day after work I had returned home but found out that everywhere was locked and the family was away. I had taken bath at my employer’s place before returning home and so my clothes were wet and I was feeling sick . Because I couldn’t access the house I decided to return to my employer’s house again and I put on the only clothes I could lay hands on which were those of the daughter of my employer with whom I am about of the same age. When her mum saw me with the clothes she was horrified. She ordered me to take it off to which I promptly complied. And shortly after she raised alarm that her wedding ring had gone missing and within minutes I was locked up”.
When I met FKK(pseudonym used to protect her identity) she had already been in police for four days without charge, despite chapter three of our sacred constitution making it explicit that save for serious offences an accused cannot be detained for more than 72 hours without charge. She had also not eaten throughout her detention due to serious diarrhea and she looked badly in need of medical help. At 16, it was also contrary to the CHILD RIGHTS ACTS OF 2007 to detain her together with adults. After studying the detention file, I quickly traced the Investigating officer in charge of her case. I advocated for her immediate release at least on bail on the ground that she had exceeded the legal limit on detention and that her health was deteriorating rapidly. And thankfully the police agreed on the condition that she had credible sureties. We later contacted her parents and after agreeing to comply to the bail condition, FKK was released. We advised her relatives to rush her to the hospital immediately and I thought they would do exactly that.
But almost an hour later, as I walked along a street not far from the police, on my way for lunch, I saw a crowd gathered at the gate of commercial bank. The curiosity side of me prevailed and I decided to have a look. My natural guess was that it was an “okada accident” or maybe a voodoo priest, two common sights in this part of Sierra Leone. To my greatest horror, standing in the middle of the crowd was FKK being scolded by her relatives to produce the ring which they alleged she had given to her boyfriend. I tried to intervene but the crowd could not listen to my pleas for passage. Drained by malaria myself I decided to let go and may be trace her house later. Unfortunately I later realized from my records that her address didn’t have any number. Like other places in Kenema it is just an area. We could not trace any of her relatives either.
I was very disappointed that I could not follow up on her, always worrying about what could have happened-Whether the ring was found or God forbid she had died from her bout with diarrhea/cholera. I kept checking with the police to see whether she had been rearrested or what. No answers. I wanted to know whether her sureties kept coming but nothing. I thought poor girl.
And even as I boarded a bus heading back for Freetown on completion of my internship, I realized that I was looking at every young girl eagerly hoping it could be her. But I never saw her again. All what remains of her to me was a mental picture of a suffering young girl persecuted by her employer, police and sorry to add her family. Now this is an image that stays with anyone forever.