When the Ebola epidemic escalated in Sierra Leone around June 2014 we wondered if we should close down our legal aid organization, AdvocAid. Many international NGOs were evacuating their international staff and many local NGOs started to restrict their activities. We decided to continue to operate and to see how, as lawyers and paralegals, we could best respond to this national emergency. We provide legal aid and support to girls and women affected by the criminal justice system, one of the most disadvantaged groups in the country, as well as working to strengthen and reform the justice system.
In June 2014, the President issued a State of Public Emergency, leading to a ban on public gatherings and places of entertainment. Unfortunately, these measures have led to some people being arrested, so we have provided legal representation for them and encouraged family members to pay the fines levied against them.
In September 2014 the government declared a three-day ‘lock-down’ wherein people were not allowed out of their homes for three days. At 6pm on the last day, some people went out celebrating that it was over and shouting ‘Jesus’, praising God. One such group was arrested by the police, so we sent our paralegals to the police station to monitor the situation. After a few days the group, which included three women, were released.
Recently, a prominent community health officer was charged for allegedly permitting a burial without proper permission. His team of community health workers were shocked and threatened to go on strike. Even though we normally only provide services to women, our paralegal followed up on the case. We recently received the sad news that the community health officer had himself been diagnosed with Ebola and later passed away. We continued to monitor the case during this time, which was eventually dropped – some small consolation for his family.
Just this week, a woman was arrested for failure to wash her hands. There are chlorinated hand-washing buckets across Freetown these days and it is common to have to wash your hands several times a day before you enter any premises. This woman refused to wash her hands as she said she had just done so and was afraid of the effect of the chlorine. Not everyone is aware of how much chlorine to add to the water; some hand-washing points can make your hands burn or smell of chlorine all day. The woman said she was afraid of developing cancer from all the chlorine – a common fear. Our paralegal was able to advise her at the police station and contacted the woman’s family, who assisted with paying her fine.
It is a difficult time for Sierra Leone. These laws are put in place to try to halt this tragic epidemic as quickly as possible. We recognize and value this, but also want to make sure that we play a role in monitoring the current State of Emergency and ensuring that it is enforced in a proportionate way that respects people’s rights. It is easy for law-enforcement officers to assume that rights are done away with and that anything can be done just because we are under a State of Emergency.
The Ebola epidemic has impacted all areas of life in Sierra Leone and has had a significant impact on the justice system. The courts have scaled down the number of hearings per day and adjournments can be lengthy. Many magistrates and lawyers have left the country. Others cannot return from abroad due to flight cancellations caused by the epidemic. Still others cannot attend court because of the quarantines. So women may spend much longer in pre-trial detention than usual, which negatively impacts on their families: women are the main caregivers and often the main income-earners. Many women have young children in prison with them. So we try very hard to ensure our clients get bail.
We have supported the prisons we work in with Ebola-prevention materials – chlorine, rubber buckets, disinfectant materials and disposable gloves. Thankfully there has been no reported case of Ebola in the female prisons and we pray it continues that way. However, there was a scare recently when one of our paralegals reported a suspect in a police station who was thought to have Ebola. Ebola in prisons is a risk, with prison officers being exposed in the communities they live in and a regularly changing prison population. With government funds diverted to the Ebola response, prisons are in need of urgent support.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, issued in 2005, speaks about the failure of justice in the lead-up to and during the 1991-2002 civil war. It criticized lawyers for not sufficiently standing up against the violation of rights, and highlighted the lack of access of most people to the courts. We want to make sure that, when we reflect upon the Ebola crisis, that same charge is not levied against us. We look forward to seeing a stronger and more prosperous Sierra Leone, when this epidemic is over. And that future can only be built upon a solid human rights foundation.
We have started a series of Law in the Time of Ebola blog posts which you can find on our website: www.advocaidsl.com
By Simitie Lavaly and Sabrina Mahtani of AdvocAid.