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FREETOWN, Nov 11 2009 (IPS) - It may be seven years after the country’s civil war, but Sierra Leone is still battling to obtain an independent judiciary.
Recent claims that the president’s office had inside knowledge of the date a judgment, in a case brought by the media, would be handed down has left many wondering if the country has independent courts.
Since the end of the 11-year civil war in 2002, the British Department for International Development (DFID) has been pouring huge amounts of money into helping reform the judiciary which, like many state institutions, had virtually collapsed.
Judges and magistrates were provided with luxurious vehicles, the law courts were given a facelift, judicial officials were trained and the prisons system overhauled. But there is still much to be desired.
Sierra Leone’s 1991 constitution clearly affirms the independence of the three arms of government – the judiciary, legislature and the executive (presidency) – but the judiciary has often been accused of allowing some of its activities to be interfered with by the executive, eroding neutrality.
A long-awaited ruling is expected on a matter brought before the Supreme Court by the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), demanding a repeal of the criminal and seditious libel laws of the 1965 Public Order Act.
Arguments in the matter were concluded in March 2009, and a ruling was expected within 90 days, according to the country’s constitution. But when the Supreme Court reneged on giving a verdict, the SLAJ imposed a news blackout on the judiciary and other arms of the government, such as the police and the ministry of information, which the media association saw as accomplices in thwarting its goal.
Apparently embarrassed by this stand-off, the president’s office wrote a letter to the SLAJ informing the association the ruling would be given in mid-September, when the judiciary resumed sittings following months of recess.
The SLAJ was re-assured and hopeful, but this provoked widespread condemnation of the president’s office by rights monitoring groups and democracy watchers, who accused the executive of interfering in the activities of the judiciary. As yet, there has been no ruling on the matter.
First to fling down the gauntlet was the Awareness Times, a daily tabloid that has been a thorn in the flesh of the administration.
Its publisher, Sylvia Blyden, told IPS: “It is not that we are opposed to the cause of SLAJ. We are simply pointing out the constitutional abuses of the executive, and how these undermine democracy. How would the president know when the courts were to pass a ruling if he was not interfering with their activities?”
Her campaign resonated with that of others who believed democracy was under threat. The president’s office was forced to issue a press release insisting that it was neutral. It claimed its message was simply that the ruling would be given any time within the judicial year, which started mid-September.
Blyden claims she has herself been a victim of what she described as executive interference in judicial proceedings. In July 2008 she took the president’s press secretary, Sheka Tarawalli, to court for alleged libellous articles about her.
The matter had barely started in court when the attorney-general, through the director of public prosecutions, issued an order of nolle prosequoi, which automatically quashed the matter, apparently to save the image of the presidency.
This was no isolated incident. The history of Sierra Leone’s judiciary is replete with allegations of executive interference, and this is not peculiar to the current government. Past regimes, both civilian and military, are similarly accused of such executive excesses.
During the past administration of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), journalist and editor of the vocal For Di People newspaper, Paul Kamara, was jailed for criminal libel, after alleged interference by the executive.
His deputy, Harry Yansaneh, died after being brutally assaulted by aides and the children of a former member of parliament. After alleged executive interference no one was brought to trial, in spite of the courts having ordered arrests.
Easmon Ngakui, spokesperson for the bar association, agrees there are shortcomings in the judiciary – but denies it is been influenced by the executive.
“I don’t think the executive influences the judiciary. Rather, the judiciary has a long way to go in terms of meeting the logistical challenges and manpower requirements,” Ngakui told IPS.
Judges and magistrates, he argued, did not even have computers and were poorly paid. In addition to Ngakui’s position, there is an apparent shortage of judicial personnel, and allegations of corruption abound.
On top of this, the head of the judiciary, the chief justice, is appointed by the president as are senior members of the bench. Some believe this has undermined the effectiveness of the judiciary, as decisions sometimes get influenced by the executive.
“How can the judiciary be effective when poor people don’t have access to justice? Suspects spend years on remand without having their cases heard in court, and most people cannot afford to hire the services of lawyers because of poverty,” commented Michael Jones, a legal analyst in the capital, Freetown.
Sierra Leone has had to hire foreign judicial personnel from neighbouring countries like Ghana, Nigeria and the Gambia to shore up its system, and the difficulty in meeting legal costs by the majority of the citizenry drove a group of young lawyers to set up a legal aid service, which provides services to the poor and marginalised.
Melron Nicol-Wilson, executive director of the Lawyers’ Centre for Legal Assistance (LAWCLA), told IPS they were motivated by the growing number of people who had no access to justice.
“It is a huge sacrifice but a worthy cause. The majority of people in this country have no access to justice, because for them the legal charges are prohibitive and they are too poor, so we are stepping in to help,” Nicol-Wilson said.
LAWCLA has gained a reputation for championing the poor and helping them gain access to justice through its many lawyers, free of cost.
It is widely believed here that politicisation and under-funding of the judiciary have over the years been the main cause of ineffectiveness. So the intervention of DFID, which provides financial support for its overhauling, is seen as a ray of hope.
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