FREETOWN, SIERRA LEONE: On Thursday March 3rd 2011, after 6 years on death row, MK was granted her freedom.
In a landmark decision by the Court of Appeal, her original criminal trial for murder was rendered a nullity and she was discharged. The State has declined to re-prosecute the matter in light of the length of time MK has spent in prison: she was Sierra Leone’s longest serving female death row prisoner.
MK was convicted by a jury of the murder of her step-daughter on 19th March 2005, having been arrested and detained since 26th May 2003, just a year after the end of Sierra Leone’s brutal 11 year civil war. She was sentenced to death as the death penalty is still mandatory in Sierra Leone for the crime of murder, although there has been a de facto moratorium on executions since 1998.
MK’s story highlights many of the problems that Sierra Leoneans, particularly women, continue to face when they come into conflict with the law. From her arrest until shortly before trial, MK received no legal advice or assistance. Instead, this illiterate woman listened to and followed the advice of those she thought were trying to help her, including her husband, himself a suspect in the child’s murder. The result was that an exhausted and terrified woman, who was also pregnant at the time, thumb printed the confession which was later used against her at trial. While detained, MK suffered a miscarriage and lost her baby.
It was not until 2005, at the commencement of the trial, that the State provided MK with a lawyer. But this overworked lawyer who agreed to take on the case as a State-sponsored brief was only able to meet with MK three times, with each meeting lasting no more than 15 minutes. Unsurprisingly, MK’s defence failed and she was found guilty and sentenced to death.
Following the trial, MK’s plight was again hindered by the many problems which continue to plague Sierra Leone’s post-war legal system. MK had no lawyer with knowledge, time or resources to file an appeal against her conviction within the stipulated 21-day time limit. MK therefore had to rely on the state-provided Prison Welfare Officer to file the appeal 10 months after her conviction. The charitable legal assistance she received several months later made slow progress as significant time was spent simply trying to locate MK’s case file. When MK’s appeal finally came before the Court of Appeal in October 2008 it was rejected on a technicality as it was found to be too late; however the ruling was never drawn up by the Court of Appeal registry. The 21 day time period within which appeals must be filed cannot be extended for those who are condemned to death thereby restricting the right of appeal for those sentenced to the most severe sentence of all.
Despite this set back, AdvocAid continued to pursue justice for MK, and in November 2010 her matter was amazingly put back on the court listings and the Court of Appeal agreed to hear the case due to the important human rights issues it raised. Thus, last Thursday, the landmark decision releasing MK was rendered by Justices N. D. Browne-Marke, V. Solomon and A. Fofanah. The Court agreed with MK’s counsels’ submissions that the various procedural irregularities highlighted in the trial were fundamental and therefore rendered the trial a nullity. The Court deferred issuing its considered judgment to a future date as the case raises important issues which will serve as guidelines for the future prosecution of similar cases. The case is a positive step forward in Sierra Leone’s legal history demonstrating the importance and recognition the judiciary accords to human rights standards. The previous absence of judicial activism in the face of state tyranny and human rights abuses was noted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in 2005.
When the verdict was passed, MK cried tears of relief and joy and tightly hugged her counsel. She told AdvocAid that she had been fasting and praying for three days before the hearing and that after all the hurdles and setbacks, she could not believe that this day had finally come. When she was arrested in 2003 she had to leave her one and a half year old daughter with her mother. MK has only seen her daughter once in the eight years she has been in prison but on that occasion her daughter did not recognise her. MK says the visit broke her heart. Now, she cannot wait to be reunited with her child again and to rebuild the broken relationship.
The decision in MK’s case is the culmination of years of work by many dedicated individuals and organisations. AdvocAid would like to extend sincere thanks to the following:
- The lawyer who handled the matter, Kotor-Kamara Esq and AdvocAid’s Legal Officer, Simitie Lavaly Esq, who acted as Junior Counsel.
- The following donors for their generous support of AdvocAid: the British High Commission, Mama Cash, Garden Court Chambers and the Canadian Government via the Canada Fund;
- The Death Penalty Project and Bar Human Rights Committee of England & Wales for their legal support;
- L.A.W.Y.E.R.S organisation for starting the initial appeal process and for its invaluable collaboration and assistance in this case;
- The Sierra Leone Prison Service for facilitating AdvocAid’s access and work over the years;
- Members of the media who published AdvocAid articles highlighting the plight of the women on death row women, including that of MK.
After 8 years in prison, the next challenge in MK’s story involves the daunting process of reintegrating into life outside prison walls. MK was an active student in EducAid/ AdvocAid’s literacy classes in prison and has achieved basic literacy and numeracy skills. MK has told AdvocAid that she wants to continue her education but more importantly she wants to start a small business in order to provide herself and her family with an income. AdvocAid will work closely with MK to provide this vital post-prison support and also to provide after-care services, as it does with many other women in a similar situation upon release from prison.
AdvocAid is urgently in need of funds to continue its crucial legal aid work and reintegration support activities. For those who would like to donate to the work of AdvocAid, please contact AdvocAid via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or AdvocAid’s Facebook page. Funds can also be donated on-line at our website www.advocaidsl.com/ or via Just Giving www.justgiving.com/advocaid.
Notes to Editors:
1. AdvocAid supports justice, education and reintegration for female detainees, and their children, in Sierra Leone. Founded in 2006, the organisation’s aim is to strengthen access to justice, including an increased ability to claim rights for women and to empower them as active citizens through the provision of education, welfare and post-prison support.
2. There are currently 3 other women on death row in Sierra Leone. AdvocAid is assisting all women with their appeals in the Court of Appeal. In 2009 another woman on death row’s conviction was overturned and a re-trial ordered following a successful appeal facilitated by AdvocAid. AdvocAid is providing representation for her re-trial.
3. The death penalty is provided for by Section 16 of the Sierra Leone Constitution 1991 which states:
“No person shall be deprived of his life intentionally except in execution of the sentence of a court in respect of a criminal offence under the laws of Sierra Leone, of which he has been convicted.”
4. The death penalty in Sierra Leone is mandatory for the following 4 crimes in Sierra Leone: (i) murder, which is a common law offence; (ii) Treason and other related offences under the Treason and State Offences Act 1963; (iii) Mutiny under the Sierra Leone Military Forces Act 1961; and (iv) Robbery with aggravation under the Larceny Act 1916 as amended by the Larceny (Amendment) Act No. 16 of 1971.
5. Section 121 of Sierra Leone’s Criminal Procedure Act 1965 provides that every sentence of death shall direct that the person condemned shall be hanged by the neck until he is dead, but shall not state the place of execution. In the case of court martial, execution is by firing squad.
MK (right of photo) greeted by an ex prisoner who had come to welcome her at AdvocAid’s Office (photo © AdvocAid 2011)
6. Section 64 of the Courts Act 1965 provides that appeals against criminal convictions must be brought within 21 days of the initial conviction. This period can be extended by the Courts but not in cases involving the death sentence.
7. Since 1998 there has been a de facto moratorium in Sierra Leone on executions. The last execution was of 20 soldiers in 1998, executions sanctioned by President Tejan Kabbah and his Government.
8. Sierra Leone’s conflict began in March 1991 and continued until January 2002, when President Kabbah declared that disarmament was complete and the war over.