Justice in a time of Ebola

Sierra Leone imposed a state of emergency in July 2014, with the stated aim of giving the government more power to deal with the Ebola outbreak. However, it has overstepped the mark in detaining citizens without trial, writes SABRINA MAHTANI. 

In late October 2014, Sia* was cooking with her niece Kumba* in Koidu, a large town in the Eastern region of Kono in Sierra Leone, when she heard people running and guns being fired. Her relatives told her not to worry and she continued cooking. She was warned there was now a curfew in place.

The next day the two women were arrested by the police, leaving their children without their mothers, and their families without income earners – Sia is a traditional birth attendant and Kumba sells dry fish. The police told them this was on “orders from above” and that the police had a list of people to arrest, but they were never told the reasons for their arrest.

They left Kono at 12am and drove to Freetown, about eight hours drive. They were detained in the Central Investigations Department Headquarters for nine days and then taken to Freetown Female Correctional Centre where they have remained ever since. I interviewed them in the courtyard of the prison, the dusty Harmattan wind clouding the skies.

“We were never interviewed by the police. They only told us our arrest was related to a riot,” Sia tells me, wringing her faded lappa wrap. “We don’t know when we will be released and have no idea when we will see our families again.”

These arrests relate to a riot that happened in Kono over a contested suspected Ebola patient who was the 90-year-old grandmother of a local politician. Her family is accused of refusing to allow health authorities to take her for an Ebola test.

At least two people were shot dead during the riot, with witnesses describing how police officers used live ammunition to disperse the crowd. Thirty-four people were arrested under an executive order issued by President Ernest Bai Koroma. The president was able to issue the order owing to the wide powers granted to him by the state of emergency, passed in July 2014 in order to give the government more robust measures to deal with the Ebola outbreak. Twenty-six people were subsequently released, but five men and the two women still remain in detention. No serious investigation has been done into the two people who were killed.

AdvocAid, a women’s rights organisation representing the women, wrote to the president on 9 January requesting the release of the two women. Several civil society organisations have spoken out against the indefinite detentions, but a month later the people are still detained without any review by a judicial authority. Sierra Leone’s Constitution provides that detentions under the state of emergency powers should be reviewed by an independent tribunal 30 days after a refusal by the president to release the detainees.

This is not the first time the president has used his powers under the state of emergency to restrict human rights. In November, a well-known journalist, David Tam Bayroh, was arrested under an executive detention order for criticising the government’s Ebola response on his popular radio programme. He was detained for 11 days without charge and later released on bail after much local and international outcry.

The Ebola crisis has severely impacted all areas of life in Sierra Leone and the government still faces a huge battle to curb the epidemic and the challenge of rebuilding Sierra Leone post-Ebola. The justice system has also been affected, with legal-aid organisations detailing further delays in cases being heard, a shortage of magistrates, and people detained for minor issues under the state of emergency and by-laws for the prevention of Ebola, such as breach of public-gathering laws or time limits for public trading.

However, any restriction on human rights is required to be in accordance to international standards, even in the name of public health or public emergency. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Sierra Leone is a party to, imposes clear obligations when declaring a state of emergency. Detaining people indefinitely or restricting fair-trial guarantees are against international-human rights law and do nothing to support the laudable efforts to combat the Ebola crisis.

Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up after the civil war, stated that Sierra Leone’s current constitution “devotes more space to taking away the rights of citizens than ensuring their respect”, and recommended that all emergency measures should be subject to judicial review by the courts of Sierra Leone.

The decreasing number of Ebola cases is opening space for reflection about the causes of the Ebola crisis and lessons learnt from the suffering and sadness of the past year. The right to adequate health care, the right to information, the right to speak freely, the right against arbitrary detention, and the required safeguards against excessive state power during an emergency situation, are among the many rights that Sierra Leone needs to better ensure to prevent further human-rights violations and a similar crisis unfolding in the future. Sierra Leone’s ongoing constitutional-review process presents a prime opportunity to do just that.

*Names changed to protect the women’s identities

– Featured image of a woman at Freetown Female Correctional Centre courtesy of Tom Bradley/AdvocAid.

Sabrina Mahtani bio picSabrina Mahtani is Amnesty International’s West Africa researcher based in Amnesty’s regional office in Senegal. She has worked in Sierra Leone on human-rights projects since 2005, including founding civil-society organisation AdvocAid. You can follow her on Twitter.

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