Sierra Leone: Women in Conflict with the Courts

Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Logan Hambrick
Western Africa
Sierra Leone


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.


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.


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.