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.

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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.

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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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Help Prevent a School Girl from Spending Christmas in Police Detention

December 23rd, 2013 — 2:22pm

Fatmata is a young secondary school girl, around 18 years old, who is currently being held in police custody at Magburaka Police Station, Northern Sierra Leone. She has been held since 3 December 2013 without charge, way over the 10 day constitutional time limit.

 Fatmata was first arrested in February 2013 and charged with the murder of a relative. She was later detained in Magburaka Prison and represented by AdvocAid’s Makeni Duty Counsel, Benedict Jalloh. The Prosecution was unable to obtain an autopsy report on the Deceased and therefore could not proceed with their case. As a result, on 3 December 2013, Fatmata was discharged by Honourable Magistrate Gooding at Magburaka Magistrate Court. He held that the Prosecution had failed to establish a prima facie case during the preliminary investigation stage.

 As soon as Fatmata left the court, thinking her ordeal had ended, she was re-arrested for the same offence and detained yet again in Magburaka Police Station. She is being detained whilst the Prosecution try and arrange for the necessary  autopsy report She has been detained for 20 days without charge, well over the 10 day constitutional time period, and it is not clear when or if she will be charged. It is challenging for AdvocAid to file a habeus corpus application as the High Court had gone on circuit to Port Loko and the Christmas period is approaching when the Courts do not sit.

 AdvocAid have been engaging the Magburaka Police, Makeni State Counsel, Director of Public Prosecutions, the Inspector General of Police  as well as the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone.

 We urge the Magburaka Police to discharge Fatmata or put her on bail given that they have exceeded the lawful detention time period and considering that the Magistrate discharged the case for lack of evidence. The Prosecution has had ample time to gather evidence in this matter and a young school girl should not suffer and have her rights violated because the Prosecution has failed to gather the necessary evidence.

 Fatmata’s life was suddenly stopped over 10 months ago when a close relative died. She has been in detention for over 10 months. We respectfully ask the Inspector General of Police and Director of Public Prosecutions to assist in ensuring that this young girl be freed and be reunited with her family for Christmas.  We encourage our fellow civil society activists to monitor the situation and intervene as appropriate.

AdvocAid is a civil society organization that provides access to justice and strengthened rights for girls and women in conflict with the law in Sierra Leone.

Head Office: 39 Upper Brook Street, Freetown, Sierra Leone,

+232 33 572526

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Press Release: No Place for the Death Penalty in Sierra Leone’s Future Constitution

October 10th, 2013 — 1:19pm

On World Day Against the Death Penalty, 10 October 2013, AdvocAid renews its campaign to ensure that the death penalty is fully abolished in Sierra Leone. The current constitutional review process underway is an excellent opportunity to ensure that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s imperative recommendation to abolish the death penalty is implemented.

“Respect for human dignity and human rights must begin with respect for human life. Everyone has the right to life. A society that accords the highest respect for human life is unlikely to turn on itself.” Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Despite the strides the Government has made in issuing a moratorium on executions, the death penalty is still permitted in Sierra Leone’s laws as the ultimate punishment for crimes of murder, treason and armed robbery. In 2011, the Government commuted the death sentences of all prisoners to life imprisonment. Since then, nearly all former prisoners on death row have either been pardoned or released following appeals or advocacy undertaken by AdvocAid and its Legal Officer, Simitie Lavaly. However, one sole female former death row prisoner remains in Freetown Female Prison on a life sentence, Baby Allieu. Simitie Lavaly, AdvocAid’s Legal Officer, is currently conducting her appeal before the Court of Appeal. Baby Allieu is a young orphan lady who was arrested for wounding her boyfriend who later died. Although she states that she wounded him in self-defence as he was strangling her after initially beating her with a pipe, her defence of self-defence was rejected by the jury at Kenema High Court in 2010. Two other male prisoners (formerly on death row) remain incarcerated and sentenced to life imprisonment in Pademba Road Prison. All three have not been pardoned as they have appeals before the Court of Appeal which have still not been heard.

AdvocAid has secured the release of 4 women on death row, through appeals or through applications to the Presidential Pardon Committee. We strongly feel that the death penalty has no place in Sierra Leone’s future constitution and future society and urge the Constitutional Review Committee to ensure that the death penalty is prohibited. We also urge the Government to sign the 2nd Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

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Female Prisoners in Kenema Pass Stage 1 Literacy

July 19th, 2013 — 9:41am

A short video of a graduation ceremony in Kenema Female Prison for women who passed their Stage 1 Literacy.

AdvocAid runs literacy classes for women in prison across Sierra Leone with our fantastic partner, EducAid, an educational charity. The women are singing “Learning Is Better Than Silver or Gold”, very true!


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Urgent Press Release: Unconstitutional Detention of Alleged Electoral Malpractice Suspects by Sierra Leone Police

November 22nd, 2012 — 8:26pm

We, the following civil society organisations, AdvocAid, Amnesty International, Centre for Accountability & Rule of Law (CARL), L.A.W.Y.E.RS (Legal Access through Women Yearning for Equality Rights & Social justice), and Prison Watch, strongly condemn the action of the Sierra Leone Police in detaining alleged election malpractice suspects beyond the 72 hours constitutional time limit prescribed in section 17(3) of the 1991 Constitution.


In particular, we would like to highlight the plight of 6 female suspects currently detained at the Criminal Investigation Department from about 1700 hours on Saturday 17th November 2012. Five of the female suspects were employed by NEC in various roles during the conduct of the elections. Of serious concern is the wellbeing of one of the detainees, who is a suckling mother of 17 month old twins. She has been denied access to her children since her arrest, which is a serious breach of the United Nations Minimum Standards on Detention of Female prisoners (known as the Bangkok Rules).
The Constitution provides that all suspects are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and that they must be brought speedily before a competent authority to adjudicate on their guilt or innocence should the Sierra Leone Police believe they have sufficient evidence to charge their matters to court.
We, therefore, call on the Inspector-General of Police and the Attorney-General & Minister of Justice to immediately bring them before a competent court of law or release them on bail.
We are also calling on the Chief Electoral Commissioner, Dr. Christiana Thorpe, to speedily announce the results of the elections as all Law Enforcement and Security personnel are declining to comply with the rule of law and constitutional provisions due to the uncertainty being created by the delay in results being announced.
Finally, we are also calling on the international community to take note of these breaches of fundamental human rights during and after the electioneering period.
AdvocAid, Head Office: 39 Liverpool Street, Freetown, Sierra Leone, 33 572
Amnesty International, Freetown
Centre for Accountability & Rule of Law (CARL), 7 Percival Street,(3rd Floor), Freetown
L.A.W.Y.E.RS (Legal Access through Women Yearning for Equality Rights & Social justice), Head Office: 11 Percival Street, Freetown. Tel: 076 820291
Prison Watch, Mends Street, Freetown

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AdvocAid’s work featured in IRIN news report

November 21st, 2012 — 5:16am

AdvocAid’s work, particularly our recent research report on Women, Debt and Detention, was featured in an IRIN news report (below).

SIERRA LEONE: Women, debt and detention

Juveniles in a police cell in a Sierra Leone, where women are being detained for owing debt

FREETOWN, 11 October 2012 (IRIN) – Many Sierra Leonean women who are unable to repay small debts end up in prison for want of decent legal representation after their creditors report them to the police, meaning that civil disputes turn into criminal cases.

An estimated 10 percent of all charges issued by the Sierra Leonean police involve the failure to repay small debts.

The criminalization of debt upsets the livelihoods of the accused who are mostly petty traders. Their children at times are forced to live with them in detention and their incarceration often breaks up families and deepens poverty, said Advocaid, a Sierra Leonean civil society group helping women and children offenders.

Ignorance of legal rights and an outdated law contribute to the trend in which debt disputes turn into criminal cases. The crime of “fraudulent conversion” is based on Sierra Leone’s 1916 Larceny Act. The charge relates to a person’s inability to repay debts.

“Why are you serving a five-year prison sentence when you owe somebody just US$100,” Advocaid’s interim director Simitie Lavaly told IRIN. “By just providing a lawyer you can save someone’s life.”

In 2006 when Advocaid began offering help to women imprisoned for debt defaulting and other offences, there were 50 women in the main prison in the Sierra Leonean capital Freetown unable to raise bail or afford legal representation, Lavaly said.

“The only reason these people were in prison is because they were poor and could not afford representation. There was no educated person in prison. All of these women are illiterate. Even now the majority of the women in the criminal justice system are illiterate. You are not there because you are a bad person, but because you cannot get legal representation.”

Poverty is widespread in Sierra Leone, which is recovering from a civil war that devastated its people and institutions. The judiciary is inadequately staffed, and has a big backlog of cases, Advocaid said.

Magistrates are overworked and under-trained, there are constant adjournments, missing case files, lack of transport for prisoners to and from court and a shortage of magistrates has created lengthy delays, Amnesty International said in its 2012 state of the world’s human rights report.

Many women have been arrested, detained or convicted because of debt issues, noted Advocaid. However, other common offences by Sierra Leonean women include murder, causing serious injury to someone – in many cases their husbands – and public disorder.

Poor understanding of the law

Poor understanding of court procedures and language barriers have resulted in many suspects inadvertently admitting guilt and getting convicted. A 19-year-old woman who spoke to IRIN said she was charged with murder after she accidentally stabbed her husband with a sharp object she was carrying when he fell on top of her while playing. She spent 18 months in a remand prison before her trial started, but was later acquitted.

“I am unhappy about the murder charge because I didn’t have any intention of killing my husband,” she said on condition of anonymity. “The police have to help. They didn’t investigate the case properly. One of the policemen told me that I killed my husband on purpose… I would have been put in jail and I would have been so frustrated and perhaps killed myself.”

Another ex-detainee, who requested not to be identified, told IRIN she was condemned to life in prison for murder after being accused of poisoning her co-wife’s son, but said she was falsely accused. With legal representation, her life sentence was reduced to eight years and she was later released on account of time served.

“The biggest challenge confronting the formal justice system is the public perception that it has been compromised by the executive and lacks independence,” said Ibrahim Tommy, director of the Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law, a Sierra Leonean activist group.

In addition, he explained that there are few state counsels, access to justice both physical – there are few courts and magistrates in a given region – and many cannot afford to hire a lawyer. Most of the country’s lawyers, estimated to be around 500, are in private practice or working for corporations and mainly based in Freetown.

The granting of bail, which is at the discretion of magistrates and judges, has been seen as unfair. In addition, some plaintiffs have been known to fail to turn up to court for hearings once the accused has been detained, thus dragging out cases and crowding prisons.

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