October 1, 2018
By Yusufu S. Bangura
Potential innocent people suffer in jail for years without a trial because jurors fail to perform their responsibilities. Judicial experts have also accused witnesses for cutting back-door deals and failing to appear in court to testify. President Bio has promised to overhaul the judiciary, but concrete results are not yet visible.
Alakeh Olive Johnson, Umaru Majid Cole, Edward Joseph Moijueh and 5 others from Freetown, were recently released on bail after having spent over 6 years on remand on murder accusation. The court has already restarted their case three times and, from all indications, the case could be restarted a fourth time.
This case is not unique. There are many other similar when the accused have to wait for years before they reach the end of a trial. Just recently, two accused disclosed that they have been in detention for over 8 years when speaking in front of Justice Justice Reginald Fynn.
The Judiciary is overwhelmed with these cases which they call generally as “challenges.”
Among the so-called challenges specifically for murder trials, are lack of jurors, prosecutor witnesses and other witnesses not showing up for testimony when called.
Isatu Kargbo, alias Sampa Soko, has spent over 3 years in detention at the Female Correction center in Freetown. She was charged in 2015 for the alleged murder of Alpha Kamara at Cole town, Waterloo, western Freetown. After the preliminary investigation at the magistrate court presided over then by Albert J. Moody, her indictment was sent to the High Court in June 2017 for trial.
There, Justice Alusine Sesay stated to the open court that Isatu’s situation was getting worse every day and eventually he granted her bail because the prosecutor failed to summon his witnesses. Justice Sesay also told the prosecutor to refrain from bringing any cases before him in the future if he doesn’t have a witness ready to testify.
A witness is a person that sees an event, typically a crime or accident, take place and is called to testify in court before magistrates or judges. But in Sierra Leone most witnesses are afraid to testify, and find excuses, such as that they are not feeling bright or they are not in town. In other instances, it has been known that witnesses cut deals with the family of the accused not to testify.
The saying ‘Justice delayed is justice denied’ means that if legal redress is available for a party that has suffered a form of injury, but is not forthcoming in a timely fashion, it is almost the same as having no redress at all.
The right to a speedy trial is a fundamental human right. It is unfair for an individual, who has not been prosecuted and/or convicted, to spend years in jail until the justice system can take its course. More simple, if someone accuses you of murder, and you get arrested and thrown in jail, you would hope for a speedy trial so that you can prove your innocence and return to freedom.
This phenomenon of delayed justice has been present in Sierra Leone for many years. People suffer in jail, deprived of their liberty, family, and social interactions because the justice system is failing.
The absence of jurors in murder trials is the single largest cause for the long delays causing hundreds of potentially innocent people to suffer behind bars. According to the Penal Code, if a person is found guilty of murder, the punishment is death by hanging or life imprisonment.
During the opening of the High Court criminal session this year, Honorable Chief Justice Abdulai Hamid Charm stated that sanctions will soon be imposed on jurors who refuse to attend court proceedings when the new Criminal Procedure Act (CPA) would have been completed, adding that the judiciary has suffered much public blame for the delayed cases. The Justice encouraged jurors to continue to cooperate with the court and perform their civil responsibility as jurors.
Justice Charm admonished jurors not to relent, as the court recognizes their presence. He said the judiciary is handicapped by the absence of jurors.
Lawyer Joseph A.K Sesay is State Prosecutor attached to the Sierra Leone Law Officers Department. He expressed concern that the persistent absence of jurors in murder trials poses serious challenges to their work as prosecutors.
“The action of jurors has prolonged murder trials, some for over 5 years in the High Court without any progress […] and sometimes because of the long delay, some factual witnesses that are named in the indictment will travel out of the country without testifying or sometimes die.”
Due to the persistent absence of jurors, many accused persons have either been released from jail or left suffering in prison without justice.
Lawyer Kargbo recommended that the judiciary should be providing incentives to the jurors as a means of encouraging them to take their work seriously.
“This would help the timely delivery of justice to accused persons especially those on trial for capital offences,” he said.
He further recommended that the number of jurors empaneled per case be reduced to a number that will make it easier for speedy trial.
He also blamed the witnesses in certain cases for delaying murder trials, because they are not working with the prosecutors.
The position of the defense lawyers is clear. The situation renders outright injustice to their clients and to defend them in any trails.
Lawyer Cecelia Tucker is a defense counsel attached to the Sierra Leone Legal Aid Board. She noted that the absence of jurors was creating great hardship for their clients, adding that most of the accused that are tried by judge and jury are being incarcerated without speedy trial.
Tucker underscored the need for the judiciary to be sensitizing jurors that they must serve in that capacity once nominated by their respective ministries.
She also emphasized the need for the judiciary to cooperate with ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) to ensure that whosoever they send as juror, they will be committed to serve diligently and responsibly in that capacity.
The review of the Criminal Procedure Act would come as a welcome move because the delay in the delivery of justice to accused persons languishing behind bars is a serious concern.
Chief Forensic pathologist at the Connaught mortuary Dr. Simeon Owizz Koroma, is responsible to examine and conclude the official cause of death in suspect murder cases. He said that he encounters many challenges because he is the only pathologist in the country. He has no time to rest and there is a lot of pressure on him.
On top of that, he has little to work with. For example, the cold room where the dead bodies are preserved, was previously used as fish storage at a government facility and then later donated to the mortuary.
Dr. Owizz Koroma detailed that the human resources are not available, there is no training programme for his staffs in the mortuary, there is no equipment and other logistics necessary to perform his work.
In his vast experience as the country’s only pathologist, Dr. Owizz said that male youth are most often involved in murder cases, in part due to abuse of drugs such as Tramadol, Marijuana and alcohol with their victims often being females.
In his Manifesto, President Bio acknowledged that the “public confidence in the system of justice delivery at all levels is at its lowest ebb” and that “the justice sector in Sierra Leone is marred by poor service delivery, limited access to justice, limited allocation of resources, shortage of staffing and limited capacity.” He added that the biggest challenge confronting the Judiciary today is the growing erosion of public confidence. To this end, President Bio promised to undertake an overhaul of the judiciary and the justice delivery system in the country with a view to restoring public confidence in its independence and impartiality and make justice accessible and available for all.
The President specifically promised to “make justice easily accessible by ‘Tooling and Equipping’ of the entire Justice sector – from police to the Supreme Court’ through comprehensive capacity building.” But, for those languishing in prisons and detention centers for years waiting for a trial, justice continues to be delayed, delayed, delayed …
The actions of a national bank and an influential politician – in alienating a small community from their land – amounts to corruption, says Transparency International Sierra Leone. The fallout includes five community members imprisoned for murder and scores of residents forced to flee their impoverished community.
In the Western Urban District of Sierra Leone, land has become a powerful catalyst for violent disputes and corruption that undermines the land rights of poor communities while enriching developers, corporations and politicians. The people of Metchem, in the neighborhood of Goderich, have been particularly badly affected.
In 2000, the Metchem Bao construction company seized control of 45 acres of communal land – used for subsistence farming and the community’s cemetery – during the development of the Goderich Peninsular Highway. The company was granted permission to store heavy machinery on the site by the central government. Community representatives, however, say they were not consulted on the use of their land or informed about the contractual arrangements which, in the fullness of time, would have such a devastating impact on this poor community on the urban fringes of the capital Freetown.
When the company finally vacated the site, almost ten years later, no compensation was paid to the people or reimbursement for the losses they suffered. As the construction crews departed, the Sierra Leone Commercial Bank began to remove the heavy machinery left behind. Nobody thought to question why the bank – not the construction company – came to remove the assets.
Gradually, the people began to work the land again and revisit the gravesides of their ancestors. Life in Metchem returned to normal until, one day, representatives from the bank returned with news that left the community reeling and eventually led to the death of one man and the arrest of six local residents for murder.
Recognising land corruption
The phenomenon known as ‘land corruption’ is the abuse of entrusted power for private gain within land administration and management. It is prevalent across the world – impacting every fifth citizen – but it is particularly severe in Africa where studies by Transparency International show it affects one in every two citizens[i]. Land corruption is a critical issue in Sierra Leone[ii] where the acute shortage of land, overlapping tenure arrangements, the incapacity of public institutions, and a lack of protection against commercial land grabbing; all create fertile ground for corrupt practices to take root.
The exclusion of communities from participating in land deals between private investors and authorities is an example of land corruption. When people are evicted from their land, unfairly compensated for their losses, excluded from participating in decision-making, and denied access to relevant information; it is land corruption.
The consequences of land corruption in Sierra Leone include food insecurity, widening inequality, an increased risk of conflict and threats to traditional ways of life. Furthermore, land corruption undermines women’s rights and impedes progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. It is a most urgent issue for the nation’s politicians, institutions and civil society to address.
The bank, the politician and the land grab
In late 2013, personnel from Sierra Leone Commercial Bank met with the community’s leader, Chief Mohamed Turay, to inform him that they were seizing property belonging to Metchem Bao Construction. The company had defaulted on a loan, they said, and the bank was intending to recover its losses. “The bank collected all the vehicles and other machinery belonging to the company”, says Turay, “then, after a few months, they returned to say our land had been sold to Sanusi Bruski.”
Sanusi Bruski Kargbo is a prominent and controversial figure in Freetown. The owner of a large construction company, Bruski Kargbo once served as executive member of the All Peoples Congress (the ruling party until April 2018) and chairman of the Eastern Lions football team. He was the frontrunner in an election for the president of the Sierra Leone Football Association in 2017 until FIFA – football’s international governing body – intervened to conduct ‘integrity checks’[iii]. Bruski Kargbo is widely associated with gangs of football hooligans in Freetown[iv] and has been accused of assaulting a journalist[v] covering the presidential runoff in March.
“We were surprised that our land was being sold without our consent”, recalls Turay, adding that Bruski Kargbo immediately ordered the community to vacate the site. “One morning, Bruski [Kargbo] came with a group of young men to secure the land and, a few days later, he returned with three trucks filled with officers from the OSD”.
Armed police bring violence to Metchem
The OSD (Operations Support Division) is the paramilitary wing of the Sierra Leone Police, which the human rights watchdog Amnesty International condemned for “frequently used excessive force to disperse spontaneous protests, with at least nine protesters killed and more 80 injured” in a report[vi] earlier this year that recommended banning the OSD from participation in United Nations’ peacekeeping missions. According to residents of Medchem, the OSD paramilitary police first came to their community on 14 April 2016 and immediately began demolishing their houses, marketplace, church and school.
On 9 April 2017, a violent conflict between local residents and Bruski Kargbo’s private security team broke out. One of the security guards, a man named Mohamed Kabba Kargbo, was severely beaten and died from his injuries at a local hospital soon after. Four men (Sylvester Fonnie, Alusine Koroma, David Ashinie Cole and Sheik Mohamed Koroma) and one woman (Lovetta Maxuela Cole) were arrested and later charged with murder and conspiracy to murder.
According to locals, the accused are innocent and were arrested simply because they were at the scene when the police arrived. The six accused remain in custody – on remand – at the Pademba Road Correctional Centre in Freetown; without legal representation or a court date. Maxuela Cole, who was pregnant at the time of her arrest, delivered her baby in the female wing of the prison.
The OSD returned to Medchem on 13 January 2018 to continue the destruction of the Neufville Christian Academy School and Life Church Ministries Church, clearing the way for Bruski Kargbo’s construction company. Over 600 residents have been forced to relocate from their homes and 400 children have been left without a school. As the local teacher Patrick Sorie Sherry-Mayleor, puts it: “We are merely surviving by the grace of God. Our people are suffering, but we have no alternative since we were forced out by Bruski and his men.”
Sanusi Bruski Kargbo could not be reached for his comment. Head of the Corporate Affairs Department at Sierra Leone Commercial Bank, Mohamed Kamara, refused to comment on the bank’s role in alienating the people of Medchem from their land. In a short statement, Kamara confirmed that: ‘’I have informed my authorities about your concerns”.
This article was written by Mohamed Massaquoi in Freetown and Gareth Benest in London. It was produced for Transparency International Sierra Leone, as part of the Land and Corruption in Sub-Saharan Africa Programme. For more information, please visit tisierraleone.org