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At Last, Justice!! Through Legal Aid Board

February 9, 2016 By Oswald Hanciles

If you are a good Christian or Muslim, or, humanist, you will feel a chill would run through your body, you would shed tears at this: The Sierra Leone Legal Aid Board has been formed. No. That is not why you would cry with joy. There is amazing thing happening from the Legal Aid Board’s headquarters at Guma Building on Lamina Sankoh Street. Almost minute after minute, every day, the Board is facilitating legal representation for dozens of poor people who have been, for example: a) detained in police cells for more than three days, sometimes, for TWO MONTHS, without even being charged with; b) sent to the maximum security Pademba Road prison, and kept there for over six months, without being charged to court, and when charged to court, their case would drag on for over a year, without witnesses or evidence…. The Legal Aid Board has been getting people illegally detained out of police cells; getting those who have been jailed in poor conditions at Pademba Road prisons out…. And, I have seen their traumatized faces at Guma Building. Just yesterday, February 8, 2016, I took a case of two boys detained at the CID, and I met a CROWD (literally!!) of men and women who had been released from Pademba Road prisons. I took photos with them. They are on my FACEBOOK page.   They are brimming with gratitude to the Board – especially the ‘face’ of the Board, the matronly, determined, intense, Mother Theresa-like Executive Director, Fatmata Claire Carlton-Hanciles. They are ready to ‘worship’ President Koroma for setting up the Board. They are people – with names, faces, homes. I am going to begin bringing them into the public domain.

Jacob Swarray, 16 years of age, a JSS II pupil of the Service Secondary School; and Alie Mansaray, 18 year-old ‘heng man’ driver of vehicle with licence plate No. AJO 141 – were walking from Lumley to Wilberforce. Then, several young men ran past them, panting. They were shortly followed by other young men shouting “thief…thief…!!”. They stood to watch. But, the group of pursuers then approached them, and said they were the thieves who had stolen the SIERRATEL (the state telecommunications company) cable. They protested. They told them if they were the thieves, they would not be standing there to be so easily caught by them; and they would be sweating. The group of young men did not listen to them. They started beating them. One of them brought a handcuff, and handcuffed them to an electricity pole.

By about 8a.m. that morning, they were dragged to the police station at Lumley. They were detained there for two days, and on September 12, 2014, taken from the Lumley Police Station to Court No. 2 in Freetown. There were no witnesses; no exhibits; so, they were sent to the maximum security prison called Pademba Road Correctional Center. As the frail-looking Jacob Swarray told me, they were in at Pademba Road prisons for “sixteen months 23 days”.  They attended court – they both chanted days and numbers etched into their youthful brains – “twenty times”.

At the Pademba Road Correctional Center, they were made to share cells where a single master bed could barely fit – with twenty five other people.  There would be one blanket for each person to sleep on; but, hardly any space for them to spread the blanket on. Inside the almost airless cell, dank during the rainy season, feeling like an oven during the dry season, was also a single bucket where they would urinate and defecate – emitting unbearable odor at first, but, they soon got adjusted to it.  There was also a single bucket for drinking water – with a single plastic cup used by all.

Every morning, warders would give them ‘breakfast’ of bread that was hard, and what looked like butter, with lukewarm water they called ‘tea’. They avoided the tea, because they soon learned the milk gave them spots on their skins after they would scratch their body. In the afternoon at about 2p.m., they would have their second and final meal – rice barely enough to feed a four year-old boy, and ‘plassas’ that has no salt or maggi, and absolutely no fish.  They had one luxury, they would be taken out to take their bath daily. Some of the rough boys snubbed that luxury, and their stench in the cell would be overpowering.

It was these same hardened criminals (they mixed convicts, and those being tried in the same cells, they told me) would be like the cell bullies – beating, punching, threatening, often, in full view of the warders. A notorious one as called “Algassi”.

Algassi even had his own cell within the prison where he would lock up other prisoners; and, tell them gloatingly, “bail yourself”. The ‘prisoner imprisoned by another prisoner’ would then have to find some money to be freed by Algassi. This would often happen when they would have returned from a court session, when Algassi knew that relatives would have given them some cash.

There is a mosque and a church within the prison walls; and a football field. “But, there would not be energy for us to join in the games, Jacob and Alie told me.

There would be hardly any visitors from outside to look at the poor conditions they live in within the prisons. The only group that would visit them would be Prison Watch; but, even then, the prison wardens would stage-manage their time, showcasing only the healthy prisoners who were living in specialized cells.  ….

Strikingly handsome Alie Mansaray is 18 years of age. He was born at Wilberforce in Freetown, close to the military barracks there. He was attending primary school in 2012, at the Wilberforce Municipal Primary School. He dropped at Class Four because his mother could not afford to pay his fees.  His mother, famously known as “Fatou Pehpeh” (because she had been a buyer and seller of hot red pepper for over twenty years) arranged for Alie to learn how to be a driver with a relative.

Alie joined this relative as apprentice in his “computer”. What? Well, he told me that is the new name for ‘poda-poda’, or, small commercial bus.   After working all day, he would be taught how to drive at the Lumley Beach road at night. In 2014, he finally had learned enough. His teacher told him to get his driver’s license. It cost Le450,000. He didn’t have that money. His mother didn’t have that money. Between 2013 and 2014, Alie became a ‘heng man’ on taxi between Lumley and Bottom Mango, Wilberforce. The taxi licence plate number was AJO 141. He would drive between 6a.m. and 7p.m. daily. He would earn Le20,000 daily from the main driver of the taxi.

Jacob Swarray was the boy who was just 16 years of age when he was detained at the maximum security prisons. He told me that his father used to do surgery at the military hospital at Wilberforce Barracks. He had lived at the same barracks with an uncle, called Jacob Moses Hindowa, a.k.a. “Bo School”.

During the over one year the boys were in prison, their anguished mother and guardian, Mamie Pehpeh, had to slow down her business of buying hot pepper near the Guinea border, from Kambia District, and retailing the bags of pepper in Freetown. With her parents hailing from Kamakwei in the North Province, but, born and bred at Peacock Farm, at Wellington in the East-end of Freetown, Mamie Pehpeh has been in the pepper business. She would buy a bag of pepper at Kambia District for between Le50,000 and Le150,000; and would resell them in Freetown for about Le250,000 (if there is no pepper flooding the Freetown market from Kabala, in the Koinadugu District). She would make an average of Le500,000 profit in a week or two weeks.

The money is what she used to upkeep her home, with her five children, and Jacob Swarray, her ward.  Her husband, a soldier, Corporal Hassan Mansaray, the father of four of her children, abandoned his responsibilities a long time. He came from Kabala just before the civil war erupted in 1991. He couldn’t even speak Krio. He joined the army first as a clerk, because he was diagnosed with hypertension. Later, with the war escalating, he was absorbed into the military as an infantry.

Friday 7 August 2015, the Legal Aid Board briefed President Ernest Bai Koroma on its mandate and activities at a meeting at State House, Freetown.

The Legal Aid Board was formed in 2012 to provide accessible, affordable, credible and sustainable legal aid services to indigent persons and other related matters.

President Koroma said the establishment of the Board is a step to ensure access to justice, and protecting the human rights of citizens of the country – a practice that is in line with democratic good governance. He reminded the Board of its responsibility to not just inmates of correctional centers, but even to ordinary citizens to access justice.

He urged the Board to ensure that people are aware about its existence by embarking on massive sensitization across the country, pointing out the need to continue spot checks to correctional centers. He also mentioned the need to address the issue of those who have overstayed detention, and “clean up that backlog and use the prerogative of mercy when necessary”.

Commenting on the significance of collaboration, President Koroma stated that the local courts and paralegals must ensure that they are properly grounded on customary laws and the issues involved and also what it takes in trying to modernize the laws. He assured of government’s support and urged the Board to heighten it’s profile and make it relevant so that at the end of the day people feel secure and have confidence in the whole justice system.

He also assured them of his participation in the launching of the Legal Aid Board to help them in their sensitization and public education.