Systemized injustice is why no one is safe in Sierra Leone

Poto is a tall dark medium built Fulani man. He is handsome and soft-spoken. 

Until he was arrested on July 30 and brought to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) I did not know his name was Mohamed Jalloh. His mother gave me a bottle of Mega Cola, some Panadol, and a bar of soap to repel mosquitoes. I could get into the lockup area she couldn’t. 

I placed a meat pie from Salvonne Bakery in the bag. The lock-up officer told me I could not give him the Panadol so I removed it. I stood at the bars, separating the free from the imprisoned. There is no light in there. The bodies of other accused men behind the bars block my voice’s penetration into the cell.

I call out to him. 



The other prisoners echoed his name.

“Poto! Poto! Den Dey call you! Ooda na Poto?”

Eventually, I heard his voice. 

“Na Me!” 

Poto came forward. I saw him and felt overwhelmed with shame. As I handed him the small plastic bag, he smiled. 

”I’m so sorry Poto.”

He smiled again.

The shame I felt seeing Poto was two-told. I had just come from talking to the boss at CDIID about granting my father bail on account of his health. 

I know Poto because he is the closest thing my dad has to an assistant. My old “get na hand” Papa who trusts no one, trusts only Poto to go in and out of his house whether he is in town or not.

I could not talk to anyone about giving Poto bail. When I asked I was told ”betteh focus pan yu Daddy” let’s work on your Dad first. As a young man , his freedom and well being was not important. I have some influence which I could use for my father but Poto had none.

He was arrested on the morning of Tuesday, July 30 on Dillet Street in Hamilton, Constituency 110. He was arrested along with other young men in the community, and 73-year-old Victor Remoe-Doherty, my father. In total 23 people were arrested in Constituency 110.

Poto has no known political affiliation. He is just a man in the community who works as an aide to my old man.

Poto and 22 others have been held in custody by the Sierra Leone Police since July 30. They have not been granted bail. Poto is not an official of a political party. Reports of this detention say that 21 APC party officials have been detained. This is untrue. There are men being held who were just on the street or in the vicinity when the police arrived to arrest citizens. 

They have been charged with 22 counts of riotous conduct, public disorder, destruction of property and more.

At the lock-up I was ashamed to look at Poto for two reasons; that I had been asking for my father’s bail and not his but also because up until the day my father was arrested I had been living in a bubble. In the bubble, I believed that there was a system of law and justice that protected citizens and ensured equality. It doesn’t mean that I was ignorant of the state of law and order but I truly believed that if I wasn’t involved “if ah noh mix” then I was safe. 

I go and come and mind my business. I follow the law, not even paying police the occasional bribe for traffic violations that are common here. I do the right thing because I want this country to change. 

Even after the arrests were made I thought certainly this will pass. Surely no one is going to follow through with this. I was wrong. 

Twenty-Three people are in Freetown’s Central Prison at PaDemba Road. These people have been arrested and held beyond what is legal in Sierra Leone. They have been denied bail for two weeks come Tuesday. The 23 people are being called “APC party officials” but the majority of them are not that. 

There are two other young men, separate cases beside Poto’s in prison that are even more ridiculous. A man pushing a wheelbarrow on the street the morning the police came to Hamilton was arrested. Another who had come from buying mosquito coil also was arrested and is in prison. They are not politicians nor do they have any known political affiliation. They are just ordinary citizens.

The bottom line is that if you are a citizen of Sierra Leone you can end up in jail if someone accuses you of a crime. Whether you mix or you know to mix, once accused the police can arrest you. 

I was able to secure bail for my father almost 72 hours in detention due to his age and his health status. That bail was revoked a couple o f days later. Tuesday, August 6, he and Poto were remanded to PaDemba Road Prison along with the 21 other accused. They were moved from CID. The case was recalled on Friday morning. I spoke to my father and he said his wasn’t feeling well but hoped they would be granted bail. He has type-2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and stage 4 kidney disease. There was no bail granted. All 23 accused were remanded back to Pa Demba Road. At about 4pm, I got word that my father had been hospitalized at the prison’s clinic. His health had taken a turn for the worse.

The petitioner who brought the case has a right to justice and to accuse those people she believes are guilty of the crimes committed against her. The police has a right to investigate and prosecute. The state has a right to hear the case, and the magistrate has a responsibility to adjudicate.

What rights do the likes of Poto have? Who protects them? I can not speak to his innocence or guilt but I know that detaining him and others for 14 days on accusation without bail is inhumane. 

While this is a political case, these issues are not political. The issue of human rights and dignity are not political. 

Under the 1991 Constitution, an accused person must be brought before a court within 72 hours of his arrest in the case of misdemeanors and 10 days for a felony. They did not get to court until the seventh day of their arrest. On that day they were denied bail.

However,  bail is not a right. This means the police, and the magistrate grant you bail at their discretion. If dem feel dem gee, if dem noh feel dem noh gee. 

What hopes can a Poto have in light of what we know about the often compromised, often heavy-handed  system of justice? What protection do any of us have?

If someone arrests you or your loved one today what do you? Do you trust the system to try them and treat them fairly? Or will you pay a bribe or use all your contacts to exert influence to ensure that things go in your favor? 

Today it might be Poto, but surely tomorrow it could be you, or your father. We have to fix the system. 

Why did the police not charge this case within the 72 hours legally mandated? If they knew they were not going to charge the case in time, why did they not grant the accused bail? Who made the decision to continue to detain them for a week and how do we hold them accountable for this violation? 

Why is everyone so quiet and silent about the arrest and detention of 23 citizens of Sierra Leone? 

We have a culture of silence that makes us complicit in the destruction of the rule of law and the erosion of our own dignity. 

The ”religious leaders” have been silent. The Human Rights Commission silent. I have been ”advised” to be silent. 

What we have in Sierra Leone is not a justice system but systematized injustice. 

I may not be silent but that doesn’t mean that I am afraid. 

”Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure. 

A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man’s self-respect and inherent human dignity. 

It is not easy for a people conditioned by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear. 

Yet even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man.”

Aung San Suu Kyi