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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
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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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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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Happy Holidays

December 24th, 2011 — 3:24pm

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year from everyone at AdvocAid.

Thank you to all our donors and supporters for helping us continue to assist vulnerable girls and women in Sierra Leone.

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AdvocAid presents at National Conference on Advancing Legal Aid for Women’s Rights

December 10th, 2011 — 3:46am

AdvocAid was honoured to be invited to speak at the National Conference on Advancing Legal Aid for Women’s Rights organised by the Human Rights Commission on 8 to 9 December 2010 as part of their events listed to mark International Human Rights Day on 10 December 2011.

Sabrina Mahtani, Executive Director, gave a key note speech on “Exploring New Approaches to Legal Aid and Assistance for Women”.

Click here to read more about the conference in a news article by Awoko Newspaper.

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Women in Conflict with the Courts – Foreign Policy Digest – by Logan Hambrick

December 1st, 2009 — 4:10pm

Logan Hambrick (AdvocAid co-founder and Director) has written a fantastic article for Foreign Policy Digest – Women in Conflict with the Courts.

Full text of the article can be found below.

 

DEVELOPMENTS

Emmerson, one of Sierra Leone’s most popular artists, recently launched a new album, titled “Yesterday Betteh Pass Tiday?” The politically charged album queries whether Sierra Leone has actually improved since its civil war ended eight years ago. Working with the international community, Sierra Leone has been hard at work since 2002 trying to remake its image in terms of good governance, human rights, and rule of law. These are areas wherein the citizens of Sierra Leone have been in longstanding conflict with the State, and when left unchecked, create a fertile breeding ground for revolutionary ideology and a wide-spread conviction that change is necessary. Discontent with a corrupt political system is ultimately what sparked the “self-reliant struggle” of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in 1991, yet change still proves elusive.

Sierra Leone’s justice sector is particularly rife with corruption, mismanagement, bureaucracy, and delays, leaving the most vulnerable members of society, such as women, even more disadvantaged when they find themselves in conflict with the law. In recent years, numerous post-conflict, transitional justice initiatives, such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Sierra Leone (UNIPSIL), and the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission have highlighted the need to reform the judiciary in order to properly consolidate peace.

BACKGROUND

The Sierra Leonean revolution is infamously known for conflict diamonds and its signature atrocity – amputation. But to focus solely on the mayhem inflicted during the conflict, especially during the junta military regime from May 1997 through the Freetown invasion in January 1999, ignores the underlying tensions that brought about the conflict in the first place. The All People’s Congress (APC) under the dictatorship of Siaka Stevens through the 1970s and 80s consolidated power and established a police state that stifled dissent and operated above the law. It was during this regime that the judiciary virtually abdicated its independence, becoming a tool of the State against civilians.

Ironically, downtown Freetown’s main street is named after Former-President Siaka Stevens and runs in front of the colonial Law Courts buildings. Stevens masterminded various sham treason trials of people who allegedly threatened his leadership. In The Devil that Danced on Water, Aminatta Forna writes vividly about the abusive process that led to the death of her father (and 14 others) in 1975.

Driven in part by such grievances, Sierra Leonean dissidents, student activists, and Pan-Africanists slipped surreptitiously out of the country and underwent training (both ideologically and militarily) in Libya and later Liberia. When the revolution began in 1991, its leader Foday Sankoh recruited followers with his rhetoric of dismantling the corrupt one-party system and establishing a just State.

However, the revolution morphed into a savage struggle that did not bear witness to the ideas espoused in the RUF’s treatise “Footpaths to Democracy”. Ultimately, its leader, Foday Sankoh, died awaiting trial before the Special Court for Sierra Leone, an international hybrid tribunal established through an agreement between the Government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations, to try those who bear the greatest responsibility for the atrocities committed in Sierra Leone between 1996 and 2002. Perhaps most tragically, the decade of carnage did not bring with it an improved judiciary.

The Law Courts buildings are a short drive from the Special Court compound, though the standards of justice administered are far different. The courtrooms are noisy, hot, and overcrowded, and the dockets are packed with more cases than could possibly be heard in a day. In reality, if a defendant does not have money to either hire a lawyer or tip one of the judges’ clerks to call his or her case, the case can be adjourned and rescheduled almost indefinitely. Sometimes there is no fuel for the vehicles that bring the prisoners to court, thus wasting an entire day.

In the case of Omrie Golley, former RUF spokesperson, his treason trial was adjourned almost weekly for twenty-two months before finally being dismissed for lack of evidence. By all accounts, Golley was detained on a purely political basis, and once the 2007 election (in relation to which he was arrested while trying to register a rival political party) was complete, he was released.

Other cases do not have this same political overtone, but the defendants languish in lock-up, hoping that their case will be progressed, just the same. A representative of AdvocAid, an NGO that advocates for women who are in conflict with the law, explains that one of the most common delays is that case files are lost or cannot be found absent a bribe to various court officials. This is especially true in regard to women, where the social stigma of being imprisoned causes family members of the incarcerated women to stay away, and thus no one is around to pressure judges’ clerks to call the cases. After some time, the women’s files are inexplicably missing.

The case of Ayesha Bangalie, whose name is changed here to protect her identity, is a stark example of this phenomenon. Accused of murdering her husband, she was arrested and detained at Pademba Road Prison in the summer of 2006. The State did not provide her with a lawyer, despite the gravity of the offence and a mandatory death sentence if convicted. Her family has been afraid to visit or assist her, for fear of being drawn into a family feud themselves. AdvocAid has put together a small amount of funding to hire a lawyer for her, but the lawyer has been continually frustrated because her case file cannot be found and therefore an indictment to actually bring her case to trial cannot be drawn up. Meanwhile, she continues to live in prison with her two-year old daughter, one of two twins who were born to her while awaiting trial.

Or consider the case of Neneh Kargbo, who name is also changed here to protect her identity. She was also arrested for allegedly murdering her husband – as far back as 2000. AdvocAid found her during a routine prison monitoring exercise in 2006 and realized that she had been in on remand (or in pre-trial detention) for six years without her case ever going to court on the merits. Her first lawyer never explained to her that her charges had been reduced to manslaughter and that she had been granted bail. Therefore, she was never able to find a surety and request release pending a trial that had long been forgotten by anyone who had intended to prosecute her.

Marginalized and forgotten women like Ayesha and Neneh have little recourse against the power of the State.

ANALYSIS

Unless such gross delays, corruption, and mismanagement of the judicial system are addressed meaningfully, and the vulnerability of women vis-à-vis the justice system is recognized, Sierra Leone will not be able to move forward. Though the current irregularities within the judicial system are admittedly not as egregious to those that contributed to the root causes of the revolution, they should be taken seriously. Sierra Leoneans, women in particular, should be empowered through legal education and improved access to justice.

There are signs that the landscape is improving. Recently, Sierra Leone’s Anti-Corruption Commission has investigated a number of judges for accepting bribes and the Justice Sector Development Program has initiated a fledgling legal aid system, intended to provide some modicum of representation for indigent defendants. The United Nations Peacebuilding Fund is also helping to support legal reform.

Yet Sierra Leone’s current President, Ernest Bai Koroma, is of the same APC Party that drove the country to rebellion almost twenty years ago and the Revolutionary United Front Party is reviving itself in advance of the next election. One wonders how this bodes for meaningful post-conflict change and consolidation of peace.

Logan Hambrick is a Legal Assistant with the Charles Taylor Defence Team at the Special Court for Sierra Leone and is a founding member of AdvocAid. She has been based in Freetown since August 2006, after graduating from The George Washington University Law School with a focus in international human rights law.

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