February 12, 2016 By Alusine Sesay
A coalition of civil society organisations, including the Society for Democratic Initiative, Center for Accountability and Rule of Law, and Green Scenery have raised grave concern over the conviction and imprisonment of six land rights activists of Malen Chiefdom in the Pujehun District.
The six were convicted of incitement, conspiracy to commit a crime and destruction of 40 growing palm trees belonging to Belgian agribusiness company SOCFIN by the High Court in Bo, southern Sierra Leone on 4 February.
The activists, who are all members of the Malen Land Owners and Users Association (MALOA), were sentenced to a minimum of five months imprisonment or pay a total fine of US$35,000.
“The Judge [Justice Babatunde Edwards] ordered that the astronomical fines be paid once or face imprisonment. We, the under-mentioned organisations working to promote land rights and rule of law in Sierra Leone, are gravely concerned about the conviction and imprisonment of these activists,” said a release by the coalition of CSOs.
They noted however that: “Without prejudice to the outcome of the judicial process, it is shocking that SOCFIN, which paid one million Leones for palm trees in the Malen Chiefdom, had valued the 40 trees, which were destroyed, at two hundred million Leones (US$35,000).”
Curiously, the court imposed a sentence that is very much consistent with the company’s estimated value of the trees, they further noted.
“This clearly shows that the people of MALOA have always been justified in describing the current land agreements by which land owing families receive only US$6.25 for hectare of land annually, as unfair,” said Joseph Rahall of Green Scenery.
The coalition of CSOs continued that, “The just concluded case, along with several other ongoing legal actions against members of MALOA, is a deliberate ploy by SOCFIN with support from local authorities to intimidate and cower them into submission. We are concerned that the activists of MALOA have genuine concerns about the activities of SOCFIN in Pujehun District, which is why we will continue to support them in their campaign to bring about fair, transparent and economically sensible agreements for the vast tract of land which the company has grabbed.”
They noted that they have nothing against foreign investors, but strongly believe that the large scale land acquisitions have unfairly dispossessed locals of their heritage and made them poorer and less food secured.
“Despite several years of campaign for these agreements to be reviewed, it is regrettable that the Sierra Leone Government and the traditional authorities have turned a blind eye on clearly one of the gravest human rights issues of our time,” noted the organisations.
They added that since the verdict was passed, defence lawyers and other interested parties have not been able to obtain a copy of the verdict.
“We urge the Judiciary of Sierra Leone to make a copy of the verdict available to us so that we can determine whether there are legitimate grounds of appeal,” they urged.