Launch of New Kono Office

June 23rd, 2015 — 5:45am

AdvocAid Launches New Kono Office To Reach More Women in Need of Free Legal Aid

Friday 19 June: Today, AdvocAid held the official opening for their new regional Kono Office from which they’ll provide targeted legal support to girls and women in conflict with the law. This is the second regional office they have opened since May 2015, thanks to the generous support of donors recognising a need to increase visibility and stability of free legal aid for women in Sierra Leone.

The Kono office is being funded by the International Women’s Programme of the Open Society Initiative (OSI) whilst the European Union and British Council under the Justice Matters: Strengthening the Rights of Women and Girls project are co-funding by supporting personnel running costs.

AdvocAid, founded in 2006, are a legal aid organisation providing free legal assistance, representation and education to girls and women in Sierra Leone. They have had an informal presence in Kono since 2012 through the retained services of Lawyer Festus B. Conteh of Lacawi and more recently in 2014 through the services of their Paralegal Sidi Sowa and Duty Counsel Lawyer A B Samura.

The opening of the official office will greatly strengthen AdvocAid’s outreach and Legal Aid programme along with prioritising and building vital visibility for women in conflict with the law in the region.

AdvocAid Executive Director, Simitie Lavaly, said at the official launch: “We are delighted to be able to officially launch our Kono office and have a firm presence here in the East of the country. The women of Kono have been crying out that they need more legal services to assist them with problems they face in this remote part of Sierra Leone. Thankfully with the combined support of Open Society Initiative, British Council and EU, together we can ensure girls and women here and in the surrounding communities can have access to critical free legal-aid, welfare support and education around their legal rights. The opening of this new regional office is a positive step in reaching more women in conflict with the law.”

The launch event was attended by over 60 people including former detainees supported by AdvocAid, criminal justice institutions, partner legal and human rights organisations, AdvocAid staff and the Sierra Leone British Council Country Director, Simon Ingram-Hill.

Mr Ingram-Hill stated: “It is vitally important that as Sierra Leone emerges from the end of a very difficult 12 month period, that we have firm foundations to move forward, grow and develop from. One area that the British Council is committed to supporting, is that of protecting the rights of girls, women and their children in Sierra Leone. By enabling AdvocAid to have a permanent presence here in Kono, together with the EU and OSI, we can ensure that vulnerable girls and women are not only provided with free access to legal aid, but that they are educated about their rights, and empowered to assert them.”

There are currently not more than seven resident lawyers in the provinces for a population of 4.3 million people (80% of the population) making additional legal services absolutely critical. Free legal advice and representation is an effective way of addressing barriers that populations experiencing marginalization and poverty often face in trying to access the justice system.

The new office is located at 43 Old Yengema Road, Koidu Town in Kono District and will be open Monday to Friday, 9 am – 4.30 pm. Any women in need of legal advice, assistance or representation should contact the office on  +232 77 077 620/ +232 76 428 441.

—ENDS—

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Launch of New Regional Office, Kenema

June 1st, 2015 — 7:12am

AdvocAid Launches Kenema Office as Part of Justice Matters Programme in Sierra Leone

Friday 29 May: Today, AdvocAid held the official opening for their new regional Kenema Office from which they’ll provide targeted legal support to girls and women in conflict with the law. The opening of this new office has been made possible thanks to a partnership with the British Council in Sierra Leone, to deliver the EU funded programme: Justice Matters: Strengthening the Rights of Women and Girls.

AdvocAid, founded in 2006, are a legal aid organisation providing free legal assistance, representation and education to girls and women in Sierra Leone. Whilst they have had a presence in Kenema since 2010, they have done so via partnerships with local organisations, to share resources, such as renting office space at Timap for Justice, one of our strong partnership organisations.

With the support of the Justice Matters grant, the Kenema Office will become an up-country regional hub for AdvocAid from which to strengthen their programmes, build visibility and prioritise support for women in conflict with the law in the region.

The office will be run by Ms Jalahan Jakema Amara, Kenema Programme Officer. At the opening, she stated: “It is a pleasure and privilege to lead AdvocAid’s expansion within the East of Sierra Leone. With this vital investment, we will have far more visibility within the region, ensuring more girls and women know about our free legal support, and will have greater access to our educational campaigns and outreach work.”

The opening was attended by AdvocAid staff and former detainees, civil society partners, government representatives, members of the legal community and British Council staff including Simon Ingram-Hill, the British Council Director in Sierra Leone. Mr Ingram-Hill stated at the event: “The British Council is committed to the promotion and protection of the rights of girls, women and their children in Sierra Leone. Through our partnership with AdvocAid, we can ensure vulnerable girls and women are not only provided with free access to legal aid, but that they are educated about their legal rights, and empowered to assert these rights. The opening of this new regional office is a positive step in reaching more women in conflict with the law.”

This new Regional Office is just one element of the Justice Matters programme. Together, the British Council and AdvocAid aim to: provide increased legal information, advice and representation to women and girls in Sierra Leone; train and support four additional paralegals to provide front-line information and advice to women and girls in conflict with the law; provide support and rehabilitation to women and girls in detention; broadcast legal education and awareness programmes via radio and TV; and train female prison officers on the new UN Rules for the Treatment of Female Prisoners, amongst other activities.

There are currently just seven resident lawyers in the provinces for a population of 4.3 million people (80% of the population) making additional legal services absolutely critical. Free legal advice and representation is an effective way of addressing barriers that populations experiencing marginalization and poverty often face in trying to access the justice system.

Currently, women in Sierra Leone who come into conflict with the law have seriously restricted access to legal advice and representation. They thus often find themselves caught up in a system they do not understand, with a limited ability to navigate legal processes and claim the rights to which they are entitled.

The new office is located at 2 Sannoh Street in Kenema, and will be open Monday to Friday, 9 am – 5.30 pm. Any women in need of legal advice, assistance or representation should contact the office on: +232 (0)99 137 935 / +232 (0)76 155 411.

— ENDS —

Comment » | Press Releases

Kono Arrests: Women released after nearly six months

April 23rd, 2015 — 8:02am

Press Release from AdvocAid and CARL
Freetown, 20th April, 2015

AdvocAid and Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law (CARL) acknowledge the decision of President Ernest Bai Koroma on Sunday 12 April 2015 to order the release of the two remaining women who were arrested in Kono in relation to a reported riot that took place in Kono in October 2014 over a suspected Ebola patient. The women were part of a group of people detained after an Executive Order was issued by President Koroma using his powers under the State of Emergency on 24 October 2014. Some of those arrested on the ‘executive orders’ were later released, with the two women and six men remaining in custody.  We note that the number of men from Kono currently in detention has now increased to 11.

The detainees were detained without charge in Pademba Road and Female Freetown Correctional Centre respectively, some eight hours drive away from their homes. They have no files or documentation to support  their detention and the police declined to investigate the matter as they have been detained under an Executive Order.

We raised this issue in January 2014, alongside other local and international organizations. AdvocAid, a legal aid organization representing the detainees, wrote to the President requesting their release or confirmation of refusal to release. We also wrote to the Acting Chief Justice requesting that an independent tribunal be constituted to review the continued detention which is the safeguard provided in Sierra Leone’s Constitution. However, despite these interventions, the procedural safeguards were not implemented.

“We are of course delighted that these 2 women have been released after almost 6 months detention without charge. They are relieved after their ordeal and looking forward to returning to their families and children,” said Simitie Lavaly, Executive Director of AdvocAid.

“However, we are disappointed that due process was not followed and their detention was not legally reviewed as provided by the Constitution. If there was sufficient evidence, they should have been charged to court and had a court determine their guilt. If this was done, perhaps they would have been released much sooner,” commented Ms Lavaly.

In a Press Release dated 12 April 2015, the President is said to have ordered the release of the women because “they were part of a group that defied regulations laid down as part of measures to control the Ebola virus.  This led to a spike in the number of Ebola cases in the district… Now that Kono has had more than 45 days without new cases, the President has graciously decided to order the release of the women”.

We are concerned, on the basis of this reasoning, that the remaining men have not also been so released.  “So if these men and women were arrested to ensure that Ebola health workers were not impeded in their work to defeat the virus, why then are the men still in custody?”, asks Ibrahim Tommy, Executive Director of Centre for Accountability & Rule of Law.

We are particularly concerned because the due process in this matter has not been complied with under the Constitution of Sierra Leone. We believe that the rights of these people have been violated when they were arrested and that neither the President nor the Judiciary has taken any steps to comply with the provisions set out under section 29 subsection 17 of the Constitution. Furthermore, 11 citizens of Sierra Leone remain in custody for close to six months without recourse to a court of law.

Men and women have the same rights. Therefore, to release the women while continuing to hold the rest of the men in custody is discriminatory. We therefore call on the President to order the immediate release of all the other detainees, given that the purported reason for their arrest, the spike in Ebola cases in Kono, is no longer relevant.  Should the President fail to do so, we call on the Acting Chief Justice to constitute an independent tribunal to review the legality of their detention. Sierra Leone’s Constitution should not be ignored.

—Ends—

Find out more about AdvocAid and CARL‘s work.

Comment » | Advocacy, Blogs, Legal Aid, Press Releases, Welfare

Concern at 8 Kono Residents Detained for Over 2 Months Without Charge – Urgent Press Release

January 20th, 2015 — 4:28pm

Criminal Justice Organisations call on the President to revisit and revoke his Executive Detention Order of 24 October 2014

On 24 October 2014 His Excellency President Ernest Bai Koroma signed an Executive Detention Order against 34 people using his powers under the State of Emergency. To date 2 women and 6 men remain detained in the Freetown Female Correctional Centre and Pademba Road Male Prison respectively; they have no warrants or documentation supporting their detention in prison and therefore no date when they will be released. They will remain so detained until it pleases His Excellency to order their release. The police have stated they believe they have no obligation to investigate the matter or charge these individuals because it is an Executive order. Their arrests relate to an alleged riot that took place in Kono in October 2014 over a contested Ebola burial. Two persons were also allegedly shot dead by police officers during the same incident but to date no one has been arrested for those killings, even though police investigations are reportedly ongoing. All detainees have now spent over two months and three weeks in custody following their arrests in Kono on 27 October 2014.

AdvocAid, Centre for Accountability & Rule of Law (CARL), Amnesty International Sierra Leone and Prison Watch, four criminal justice organisations working to promote and protect the rights of detainees in prisons and police stations across Sierra Leone, are deeply concerned by the continued detention of these men and women. They are without recourse to any of the constitutional safeguards provided under section 17 of Sierra Leone’s Constitution, such as the right to be brought before a competent criminal court within the constitutionally specified timescale. The only rights they currently have is to ask the President to release them and if he refuses, for that request to be reviewed within thirty days by an independent tribunal comprising of 3 very senior lawyers. The chairman of the review panel shall be appointed by the Chief Justice and the other 2 members nominated by the Sierra Leone Bar Association. As Sierra Leone is a signatory to several international human rights treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, we believe this right to review an executive order detention under the State of Emergency is a fundamental human right that must be recognized and respected by our Government.

AdvocAid, which supports access to justice for women and girls, is particularly alarmed by the continued detention of the two women who say they were not involved in the incident that led to the issue of the presidential detention order and were not told at the time of their arrest the reason for their detention. They have never been asked to make a statement to the police. These women were detained at the Criminal Investigation Department in Freetown for 9 days before they were transferred to the Correctional Centre. They both have children about whose welfare they are concerned. On 9 January 2015 AdvocAid wrote officially to His Excellency requesting their release from detention as provided for by section 29(17) (a) of the Constitution but have not as yet received a response.

The aforenamed organizations therefore:

1. Call on His Excellency the President to revisit his Executive Detention Order and release the 8 detainees from custody under the Detention Order immediately or

confirm his refusal to release them so that the detained persons can seek a review of that refusal.

2. Call upon the Attorney-General & Minister of Justice that in the alternative if there is sufficient evidence, to ensure the individuals are charged to court without

delay and enabled to exercise their right to a fair trial.

3. Call on the Chief Justice, as head of the Judiciary and chief interpreter of the 1991 Constitution, to prepare to set up an independent and impartial tribunal comprising not more than three legal practitioners of not less than fifteen years standing to review the continued detention of the detainees as set out in section 29(17)(a) – (c).

4. Call on the Sierra Leone Bar Association to prepare to nominate the two legal practitioners of not less than fifteen years standing to form part of the panel to review the continued detention of the detainees as set out in section 29(17)(a) – (c)

5. Call on the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone to intervene with the President on behalf of these 8 detainees.

6. Call on the Sierra Leone Police and the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone to fully investigate the circumstances leading to the alleged unlawful killings of two bystanders during the riot and hold the perpetrators accountable.

7. Call on the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone and other non-State criminal justice and human rights actors to thoroughly review section 29 of the Constitution and make appropriate recommendations to the Constitutional Review Committee so that no future State of Emergency detentions take place without adequate safeguards to protect the detention and appeal rights of detainees.

Dated 20 January 2015, Freetown, Sierra Leone

AdvocAid, 39 Brook Street, Freetown, Sierra Leone. Tel: +232 76 774710. Email: advocaid@gmail.com.

Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law, Brook Street, Freetown, Sierra Leone. Tel: +232 76 365499. Email: Ibrahim.tommy@gmail.com.

Amnesty International Sierra Leone, 42 Williams Street, Off Dundas Street, Freetown. Tel: +232 76 680213. Email: amnestysl@gmail.com.

Prison Watch Sierra Leone, Gabriel Street, Freetown, Sierra Leone. Tel: +232 76 680532. Email: prisonwatchsl@gmail.com.

Notes to Editors:

1. ThePublicEmergency(Detention)Order2014ConstitutionalInstrumentNo.9of 2014 was signed by the President on 24 October 2014. This Order was gazetted on 4th December 2014.

2. Section 17 of the Constitution of Sierra Leone 1991 sets out the safeguards against arbitrary arrest and detention. Section 29 of the same Constitution sets out the provisions applicable during a State of Emergency.

3. For further information, contact Simitie Lavaly (Ms), Executive Director, AdvocAid on +232 76 774710 or Ibrahim Tommy, Executive Director of CARL at +232 76 365499 or Ibrahim.tommy@gmail.com

 

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AdvocAid Featured on CCTV News

January 3rd, 2015 — 12:27am

AdvocAid’s Ebola Prevention Programme for Prisons and Police Stations was featured on CCTV News. You can watch a clip below:

You can support our Ebola Prevention and Access to Justice programme via GlobalGiving. We are grateful for all of your support.

 

Comment » | Uncategorized

Announcing our New Executive Director

November 7th, 2014 — 12:49pm
Message from Sabrina Mahtani, Outgoing Executive Director

I’m pleased to announce that in June 2014, Simitie Lavaly took over as Executive Director of AdvocAid. I have continued to work with Simitie and our Senior Management over these past few months to support this transition and complete some projects I have been leading, such as the launch of our “Bail Is Free” Legal Education campaign. I am not leaving AdvocAid but just taking on a new role, and I’m excited to eventually be part of the Board of Directors and to continue to support AdvocAid’s strategic vision.

It is a happy and proud moment for me to see AdvocAid continue to grow and there is no one I would trust more to continue our work than Simitie. Simitie started working with us in 2009 as a law student and her dedication and ability soon saw her rise to Legal Officer and then Deputy Director. Simitie is not just capable but fiercely passionate about the rights of girls and women in conflict with the law, who are often overlooked and neglected. She has defended many women on death row and through her hard work and commitment seen over 4 women on death row released. She has high standing in the women’s movement and in 2012 was appointed as President of L.A.W.Y.E.R.S (the female lawyers association). Under her leadership, L.A.W.Y.E.R.S expanded its impact and services to women who have experienced gender based violence. I am confident that Simitie will continue and develop AdvocAid’s vision as well as our role within the wider women’s movement in Sierra Leone and internationally.


Photo: Simitie & Sabrina taking part in a legal education radio programme on SLBC

On 1 July 2005, I first came to Sierra Leone and my relationship with this beautiful country began. I was working on a research project on the death penalty with, LAWCLA, and the Centre for Capital Punishment Studies. After a month of jumping bureaucratic hurdles, Mr Showers (the former Director of Prisons) supported my access to Pademba Road Prison. He stated that he knew the prisons were in bad shape, there was nothing to hide and more to be gained through open dialogue and working with organisations. I am eternally grateful for Mr Showers’ support and reformist thinking that enabled our work in those early days. Collecting the stories of prisoners on death row and meeting women who had been in prison for years without going to court convinced me that more needed to be done for women, and their young children, forgotten behind prison walls.

We co-founded AdvocAid in 2006. 4 women working at the Special Court for Sierra Leone could not ignore the lack of services to women in Pademba Road Prison, built in 1914, just across the road from the newly built UN War Crimes Tribunal. AdvocAid’s story shows that great change can come from small beginnings. We started through teaching a literacy class once a week for female prisoners and welfare support. Later, we managed to obtain some funding and hired lawyers. We spent hours tracing families. When women were released, we started a post-prison support programme. AdvocAid has always created its programmes based on the needs we saw and informed by the women we support.

From that small start, AdvocAid has now grown into an organization that works in 8 towns across the country. We are the only organization that provides full legal representation for women in conflict with the law. In most instances, we are the only legal aid service available. We have also developed innovative legal education programmes, acknowledging that rights cannot be enforced unless there is knowledge of those rights. We launched the first legal education TV drama, Police Case, and the first legal education music video filmed in Freetown Female Prison, Nar Yu Right. Crucially, we have created more visibility and attention to the needs of women in prison, in Sierra Leone and across the world.

Over our years of work, AdvocAid has seen and contributed to change. The Government has announced its plans to abolish the death penalty. A new Legal Aid Act has been passed. There are now 2 separate detention facilities for women.. However, much still needs to be done.

None of the above could have been possible without our supporters. Thank you to Logan, Leigh and Ali (AdvocAid Co-Founders) for your dedication, time and investment despite busy schedules and distances. You have sown a great legacy. Thank you to the AdvocAid “fambul” (we always say we are a family and not just an organisation) for your hard work and perseverance. Many of you could be working in higher paid jobs with better conditions but each day you make a choice to make someone else’s life better. Thank you to our donors who supported us and believed in us, though our work is unconventional. Thank you to Mr Bilor (Director of Prisons), and Staff of the Sierra Leone Prison Service, Inspector General Munu and the Sierra Leone Police and Mrs Sarkodie-Mensah (Master and Registrar) and the Judiciary for their support and collaboration.

A personal thank you to the human rights movement in Sierra Leone who openly embraced this British-Zambian lawyer, gave me space to work alongside you and learn from you and strengthened me as an activist. Finally, a special thank you to my family and friends (too numerous to mention) who have supported me and AdvocAid’s vision, donated time and money and were patient and loving during stressful times. Particular thanks to my parents and Idriss Kpange

Mama Salone, thank you for being my 3rd home. I will continue to work to ensure that “Salone dae go bifo!”. I will continue to work for the rights of women in conflict with the law and their children across our continent. As the child of an ex political prisoner, this work is a personal mission as much as a professional calling.

A good leader knows how to lead. A great leader knows when to leave. Simitie, I wish you much wisdom and strength as you take on this new role and look forward to supporting you, working with you and seeing AdvocAid flourish as you continue our work and build future generations of leaders.


Photo: Sabrina & Simitie with the late Catherine Martyn, the longest practicing female lawyer, in Kenema High Court Registry Office

Message from Simitie Lavaly, Incoming Executive Director

Thank you very much Sabrina for the glowing introduction and the much needed prayer. It is indeed exciting times at AdvocAid and we will certainly miss you very much. AdvocAid has been able to grow to its current heights as a result of your resilience and dedication to the cause of women in conflict with the law. May you thrive in your next endeavour and we look forward to having you as a member of the AdvocAid Board.

For our donors, civil society activists and government partners, AdvocAid will continue as before and we hope you will continue to support us accordingly.  We are currently implementing a 2 year “Justice Matters” project with funding from the EU and our other donors ASJP, Mama Cash and Open Society Women’s Initiative. We have expanded our areas of work from Freetown, Makeni, Port Loko, Waterloo, Masiaka & Kenema to now include Bo, Taiama, Kono, Moyamba & Magburaka. We look forward to opening our new regional office in Kenema next year. Our contracted duty lawyers and paralegals continue to provide pro bono legal aid in their areas of operation and our social worker co-ordinates the welfare support to prisoners, and post-prison and rehabilitation support to ex-prisoners. Under my leadership we will improve upon our legal aid provision and work with stakeholders and the Law Reform Commission to look at some of the criminal justice issues that particularly affect women in conflict with the law, more particularly the issue of debt and the public order offence of loitering.

It has been a challenging time in Sierra Leone with the Ebola epidemic. However, AdvocAid is continuing its work and ensuring that vulnerable groups, such as women in prison and sex workers, are not forgotten.

I look forward to meeting with many of you in the coming months in my new capacity and seeing how together we can improve on the wellbeing of women in conflict with the law and their children.  I thank our current donors for their support of AdvocAid and encourage you to continue the much needed financial support.

Comment » | Blogs, News

Sierra Leone’s Women Behind Bars: A new documentary about our work

October 19th, 2014 — 10:05pm

 

A film crew from IRIN followed the work of 2 of AdvocAid’s paralegals, Marvel and Victoria, in Freetown and Makeni. This short film showcases the challenges they face and the importance of their free legal aid services with a growing female prison population and shortage of lawyers.

Comment » | Legal Aid, Videos

Law in a Time of Ebola – 2nd blog published in New Internationlist

October 19th, 2014 — 9:59pm

 

We are currently writing a series of Law in a Time of Ebola blogs, sharing our work during the tragic Ebola epidemic. Our second blog was published in the New Internationalist this week.

Law in a time of Ebola

Ebola provisions [Related Image]
Ebola prevention items donated to Freetown Female Prison © AdvocAid

When the Ebola epidemic escalated in Sierra Leone around June 2014 we wondered if we should close down our legal aid organization, AdvocAid. Many international NGOs were evacuating their international staff and many local NGOs started to restrict their activities. We decided to continue to operate and to see how, as lawyers and paralegals, we could best respond to this national emergency. We provide legal aid and support to girls and women affected by the criminal justice system, one of the most disadvantaged groups in the country, as well as working to strengthen and reform the justice system.

In June 2014, the President issued a State of Public Emergency, leading to a ban on public gatherings and places of entertainment. Unfortunately, these measures have led to some people being arrested, so we have provided legal representation for them and encouraged family members to pay the fines levied against them.

In September 2014 the government declared a three-day ‘lock-down’ wherein people were not allowed out of their homes for three days. At 6pm on the last day, some people went out celebrating that it was over and shouting ‘Jesus’, praising God. One such group was arrested by the police, so we sent our paralegals to the police station to monitor the situation. After a few days the group, which included three women, were released.

Recently, a prominent community health officer was charged for allegedly permitting a burial without proper permission. His team of community health workers were shocked and threatened to go on strike. Even though we normally only provide services to women, our paralegal followed up on the case. We recently received the sad news that the community health officer had himself been diagnosed with Ebola and later passed away. We continued to monitor the case during this time, which was eventually dropped – some small consolation for his family.

Just this week, a woman was arrested for failure to wash her hands. There are chlorinated hand-washing buckets across Freetown these days and it is common to have to wash your hands several times a day before you enter any premises. This woman refused to wash her hands as she said she had just done so and was afraid of the effect of the chlorine. Not everyone is aware of how much chlorine to add to the water; some hand-washing points can make your hands burn or smell of chlorine all day. The woman said she was afraid of developing cancer from all the chlorine – a common fear. Our paralegal was able to advise her at the police station and contacted the woman’s family, who assisted with paying her fine.

It is a difficult time for Sierra Leone. These laws are put in place to try to halt this tragic epidemic as quickly as possible. We recognize and value this, but also want to make sure that we play a role in monitoring the current State of Emergency and ensuring that it is enforced in a proportionate way that respects people’s rights. It is easy for law-enforcement officers to assume that rights are done away with and that anything can be done just because we are under a State of Emergency.

The Ebola epidemic has impacted all areas of life in Sierra Leone and has had a significant impact on the justice system. The courts have scaled down the number of hearings per day and adjournments can be lengthy. Many magistrates and lawyers have left the country. Others cannot return from abroad due to flight cancellations caused by the epidemic. Still others cannot attend court because of the quarantines. So women may spend much longer in pre-trial detention than usual, which negatively impacts on their families: women are the main caregivers and often the main income-earners. Many women have young children in prison with them. So we try very hard to ensure our clients get bail.

We have supported the prisons we work in with Ebola-prevention materials – chlorine, rubber buckets, disinfectant materials and disposable gloves. Thankfully there has been no reported case of Ebola in the female prisons and we pray it continues that way. However, there was a scare recently when one of our paralegals reported a suspect in a police station who was thought to have Ebola. Ebola in prisons is a risk, with prison officers being exposed in the communities they live in and a regularly changing prison population. With government funds diverted to the Ebola response, prisons are in need of urgent support.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, issued in 2005, speaks about the failure of justice in the lead-up to and during the 1991-2002 civil war. It criticized lawyers for not sufficiently standing up against the violation of rights, and highlighted the lack of access of most people to the courts. We want to make sure that, when we reflect upon the Ebola crisis, that same charge is not levied against us. We look forward to seeing a stronger and more prosperous Sierra Leone, when this epidemic is over. And that future can only be built upon a solid human rights foundation.

By Simitie Lavaly and Sabrina Mahtani of AdvocAid.

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Ebola’s Impact on Justice: AdvocAid interviewed in The Guardian

October 19th, 2014 — 8:38pm

Sluggish courtrooms, swamped clinics and parents forgoing food are becoming the norm as Ebola opens cracks in Sierra Leonean society

Sam Jones, Global development correspondent
Wednesday 15 October 2014
—-

On Monday, AdvocAid, an NGO that works with women and children in detention in Sierra Leone, was called on to help a woman threatened with prison for her behaviour outside a Freetown hospital.

The woman, angry at being told to wash her hands for the 11th time that day, had refused to use one of the ubiquitous buckets of chlorinated water before entering the building.

Unmoved by her claims that she had heard repeated contact with chlorine could give you cancer, the police arrested her for failing to obey their instructions – even though no law compels Sierra Leoneans to wash their hands.

The AdvocAid paralegal dispatched to the police station managed to get her off with a fine of 50,000 leones (£7).

As well as being an overreaction, says AdvocAid’s executive director, Simitie Lavaly, the police response was perhaps not the best use of time and resources. Since Ebola broke out in the west African country in May, it has left Sierra Leone’s justice system under severe strain.

“Very few lawyers are going to court because some are scared about coming into contact with infected people and others feel it’s not worth their while financially,” she says. “There are not many judges because a lot of them are stranded outside the country after they went abroad for the high court summer recess. The flights were cancelled and they can’t come back.”

The few magistrates still sitting, she adds, are struggling to balance the demands of justice with the logistics of emergency public health declarations forbidding large gatherings. “Before, they’d hear 30 cases a day,” says Lavaly. “Now they don’t hear more than 10 because if you have more cases, you have more people. They’re adjourning cases and they’ve also restricted litigants: it has to be your case and you can’t come with lots of friends and witnesses to support you.”

As a consequence, people are spending longer on remand: “If you don’t have a lawyer, your case probably won’t come up and when it does, you’ll get a long adjournment.”

Although AdvocAid and others are doing what they can do help those trapped in the legal limbo, their job is not easy.
With visits from family suspended in a bid to limit infection, it is left to the NGOs to bring food to mothers detained with children, and to top up the prisons’ ever-dwindling supplies of chlorine, buckets and gloves.

“We also bring in a bit of cassava for people, because a lot of time they complain that they don’t have enough food,” says Lavaly. “And God forbid, if you get Ebola, your immune system needs the food – not to mention oral rehydration solution. Even without Ebola, there are a lot of malnourished prisoners.”

While it applauds the efforts of those judges and magistrates still managing to do their jobs, AdvocAid wants the police to relieve some of the pressure by dealing with minor offences in the police station rather than clogging up the courts.

But what it most needed, argues Lavaly, is neither a fast-tracked legal process nor a judicial airdrop, but international help in bringing a swift end to the crisis.

“Many of us lived through the war,” she says. “It feels like we are back in that time again, but only it is worse. Then, we could see our enemy, but now the enemy is unknown and could be a loved one or close associate. Then, the international community and relatives overseas were sympathetic to our plight, and readily gave financial and moral support. Now, we feel like a pariah nation, closed from the outside world and with not much sympathy for our plight as no one wants to contract Ebola from us.”

In a statement released on Monday, Dr Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organisation, was blunt on Ebola’s terrible capacity to destabilise communities and institutions. “I have never seen a health event threaten the very survival of societies and governments in already very poor countries,” she said. “I have never seen an infectious disease contribute so strongly to potential state failure.”

However, the disease’s impact in Sierra Leone is more profound and more basic than indicated by the sluggish courtrooms, empty classrooms and swamped health clinics.

According to John Crisci, the UN World Food Programme’s (WFP) emergency co-ordinator in the country, its spread is making it harder for people to feed their families. “The average Sierra Leonean family spends anything from 60% to 70% of their income on food and, with this crisis, families in highly infected hotspots such as Kenema and Kailahun have lost one of the breadwinners in the family either to Ebola or to unemployment.”

In some areas, says Crisci, families are now spending 80%-90% of their income on food and adopting what the WFP calls “severe food-coping strategies”: as food becomes the predominant concern, people stop buying medicines, clothes and hygiene products.

And, with unemployment rising in towns and the countryside as people lose jobs in banks, hotels and restaurants, farmers stop tending their land and plantation employees shun work that involves large groups, and mothers and fathers are beginning to limit what they eat.

“Parents in some areas are now eating one meal a day to try to give two meals to their children,” says Crisci. “When both parents were working and had a steady income, they’d be having three meals a day.”
In response, the WFP is conducting a “no-regrets operation”, opting to bring in and then withdraw excess resources rather than risk failing those in need.

Rations of rice, beans, salt, vegetable oil and supercereals for children – supplemented by onions, stock cubes, tea and toothpaste from the Sierra Leonean government – are being delivered to families whose houses have been locked down by the military and police in the hope of halting Ebola’s spread.

“The biggest challenge in this operation is that it’s forever evolving,” says Crisci. “The number of areas in the country that are being isolated continues to grow. We’re always moving quickly behind the target, but we’re now trying to beat it.”

Crisci, who has worked with the WFP for 25 years, does not underestimate the scale of the emergency. Last week, while on an assessment mission to a village 45 miles from Freetown that had been placed in isolation, he came across a quarantined house guarded by soldiers.

“Behind them on the patio, covered with a coloured cotton sheet were two sisters, probably about two and nine years old,” he says. “One was face up and one was face down. Their mother was there on the patio, keeping a distance of a couple of metres. She was looking over at them and you could see that she was desperate and hopeless … she couldn’t do anything to comfort them. She kept on looking out at the road hoping that the ambulance was coming.

“We intervened heavily but, unfortunately, one of the little girls passed away. The other sister is in a treatment centre now and we hear her chances are slim.”

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Law in the Time of Ebola: Perspectives from Kono

August 25th, 2014 — 1:58pm

By Chris Randall, law student at Berkley School of Law, who volunteered with AdvocAid in 2014

In a small, sunlit courtyard in Koidu Prison, prisoners Aminatta, Hawa, and Kadi* practice pronouncing and writing letters of the English language. These twice-weekly English lessons coordinated by AdvocAid (through their partner EducAid) help pass the time by taking their minds off their long period of remand in prison until their trials begin.

It was in October 2013 that Aminatta was arrested and charged with her husband’s murder. She is accused of fatally stabbing him in a crowded marketplace as he pursued her while publicly provoking and harassing her. This was merely the final incident in a relationship with a long history of abuse and torment. Up until now in August 2014, Aminatta continues to await trial in the High Court of Kono District. Due to a shortage of Judges and resources, there is no permanent High Court in Kono. Rather, the court from Kenema (several hours away) moves to Kono on circuit four times a year. However, reportedly due to a shortage of funds, the High Court has not sat on circuit since December 2013.

Now, Aminatta’s trial will be further delayed as fear of Ebola spreads outside the walls of Koidu Prison. Previously in Kono, it was not uncommon to hear outright denial that Ebola even existed. Yet, almost simultaneously with Ebola’s arrival, latex gloves and tanks of chlorine water became commonplace, in an effort to prevent an infection that had already arrived. Inside the walls of Koidu Prison, although their movement is restricted, Aminatta, Hawa, and Kadi are likely safe from infection because Ebola is only spread by contact with body fluids of a symptomatic person or an infected corpse. However, that does not mean that Ebola is likely not to affect the lives of these three women.

Female Prisoners at their Stage 1 Literacy Graduation in Makeni

 

Rather, now with the threat of Ebola gripping Sierra Leone, many public institutions have halted their work under Presidential order in an effort to stop the spread of Ebola. For those institutions not given official orders to close, fears of Ebola often delay the work of individuals, who choose to postpone business in what they perceive to be high-risk areas. This has a dramatic impact on the progress of cases for those in the justice system such as Aminatta, Hawa, and Kadi because neither their Judges nor State lawyers will risk traveling to attend court with the threat of the disease. As unfortunate as it is that women such as Aminatta are already trapped within a weak justice system, their situation is exacerbated by irrational fear and denial of Ebola. Not only do these further spread the disease by obscuring the actual means by which the disease transmits, but they also delay these women’s reintegration into their families and the broader community.

Aminatta writes songs in her English lesson notebook. Singing to God, she asks how long it will take until God comes to her aid and delivers her from bondage. For prisoners like Aminatta, regular visits from AdvocAid paralegals do more than merely assure them that others are actively working upon their cases. These visits and twice-weekly English lessons help provide critical human contact during their seemingly indefinite detentions. In the end, bringing this human element to this seemingly otherwise impenetrable justice system may be one of the most fundamental, yet important dimensions of the work done by these paralegals. It is also this same sense our shared humanity that is of vital importance in coming together to halt the spread of Ebola in Sierra Leone.

* Names changed to protect the identities of the women.

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