November 20, 2017 By Patrick Jaiah Kamara, Memunatu Bangura & Yusufu S. Bangura
Hundreds of remand persons didn’t show up in court last Friday after correctional centre officers failed to bring them to courts across the capital Freetown.
In a move observers say is unprecedented in post-democratic Sierra Leone, judges and magistrates at the main Law Court building and Pademba Road failed to hear cases that had been adjourned to last Friday because correctional centre bosses, without any explanation, reportedly ordered that remand persons should not be brought to court.
Although the controversial move was a blatant violation of the liberty of hundreds held in overcrowded so-called correctional centres, it may not be unconnected to the remand of an opposition spokesperson for alleged public order offences.
Lahai Lawrence Leema was charged with five Public Order offences on two separate files, including trespass and insulting conduct, and made his maiden court appearance on 14 November. He was admitted to bail on one, but remanded on the other file with the matter adjourned to last Friday (17, November).
Magistrate Albert Juma Moody was expected to continue the trial but instead announced the adjourned date after it became apparent that the opposition politician and other inmates remanded at the Male Correctional Centre in Freetown would not be in court that day.
A junior prison officer that was summoned by the magistrate to explain why remand prisoners were not in court said his bosses had only informed him that there was no court sitting on that day.
Magistrate Moody corroborated the prison officer’s statement, adding that as a result of the absence of other prison officers in court even the High Court had to cancel closure of the Criminal Session.
The jam-packed courtroom with over twenty lawyers had been anxiously waiting for prison officers to bring accused persons to the court that day, but to no avail.
As the waiting became unbearable, lead Defense Counsel, Anthony Y. Brewah, mentioned the matter, enquiring with the magistrate as to why their client was not in court.
Lawyer Brewah followed his enquiry with two applications: to subpoena the Director of Prisons to explain why Mr. Leema was not in court, and a production order be issued for the accused person to be brought to court on their own expense.
When asked whether he had any objection to the application, Assistant Superintendent of Police Samuel Kamara declined to comment as it did not touch the prosecution directly.
However, the seemingly disturbed magistrate declined to grant the orders. He, instead, noted that he needed to seek clarification from the Master and Registrar of the High Court or Chief Justice.
Magistrate Moody stood down the matter for twenty minutes and returned with an adjourned date, telling the court that both authorities were not within the court precinct.
“Since the Master and Registrar and the Chief Justice are not within the building, I would not grant those applications. I therefore adjourn the matter to [Monday] November 20, 2017,” he said.
An anonymous source within the Correctional Service told Concord Times that: “We had already gathered to take inmates to court when the director informed us that he had received a call from the Inspector General of Police, who informed him that he would not be able to provide security on that day.”
Meanwhile, human rights defenders have condemned the move by the correctional centre, apparently acting on ‘orders from above’.
Ibrahim Tommy is Executive Directive at the Centre for Accountability and the Rule of LAW (CARL). He said the episode was “simply shocking!”
Tommy, who is also a lawyer, recalled that, “there used to be a challenge with the availability of vehicles to convey detainees to the courts, but the justice sector seemed to have overcome it. That was even part of the reason a court building was constructed near the main correctional centre. It’s unbelievable that even those facing charges before courts on Pademba Road were not allowed to go to court. This came from nowhere, honestly. I am genuinely sad for the detainees who were denied the right to have their day in court. Spare a thought for those who had a chance of being released on bail or getting an acquittal and discharge on Friday. Their right to liberty – which is guaranteed by our constitution – may have been breached. We demand answers for this embarrassing and unpleasant incident.”