On 26 May 2003, ‘MK’ (name protected for her privacy) was arrested and detained in Sierra Leone, for the murder of her step-daughter. Between 2003 and the beginning of her trial in March 2005, MK received no legal advice or assistance. It was only at the start of the trial that she was allocated a state-assigned defence lawyer, who was so busy, he had just three meetings with her of less than 15 minutes each. MK was illiterate, terrified and all on her own. She suffered a miscarriage whilst in prison, and had no hope left in life. All for something she hadn’t done.
MK’s husband had accidentally sat on the six month old baby, suffocating it. Together, they tried to revive the baby, but to no avail. They were both arrested, and he told the police that she had poisoned the baby with battery fluid – they believed him. He told MK to confess and that the matter would be resolved in a traditional family way. MK thumb printed a confession (which she was not able to read) that was later used against her in trial. “I said that I was guilty because my husband told me to.”
On 19 March 2005 MKs trial went before a judge – unable to understand English, she had no idea what was happening throughout the proceedings. The defence failed and MK was found guilty by a jury of murder. She was sentenced to death and transferred to a maximum security prison in the capital, Freetown, miles from her home.
Unable to read, write or pay for a lawyer, MK had to rely on the state-provided Prison Welfare Officer to file for appeal which was not properly done or followed up on. When she was convicted, neither the judge, her defence counsel nor prison officials had informed her she had just 21 days to appeal. Furthermore, her file wasn’t sent to the President’s office for further review as mandated by law.
MK spent six years in a small, dirty cell in the notorious Pademba Road Prison, which had a capacity of 300, then housing no less than 1400 inmates.
Shortly after MK’s sentencing, AdvocAid met MK in Pademba Road prison in one of our literacy classes. We took on her case and began the long process of trying to obtain her court file from the provinces. This took several months due to poor filing procedures and the court system trying to rebuild after the decade long civil war.
We hired a lawyer who filed an appeal before the Court of Appeal in October 2008, but her case was rejected due to being out of time. An archaic law in Sierra Leone provides that extra time to appeal can be granted but not in cases where a person was sentenced to death. MK was devastated when she heard this news. After years of trying to push forward this case, AdvocAid were severely disappointed and frustrated.
We did not give up though, and continued to strategize. We drafted a policy paper – 21 Days: Enough Time to Save Your Neck? – and began lobbying various sectors of the justice sector for reform. We reached out to senior Sierra Leonean lawyers, lawyers in the UK and the specialist UK NGO, Death Penalty Project, for support.
We also began a campaign with civil society organisations in Sierra Leone to have the women on death row pardoned and intensified our lobbying against the death penalty. We wrote press releases detailing the stories of women on death row, conducted numerous radio and TV programmes and reached out to the women’s movement to back their cause. We realised we needed to make the issue of the death penalty a personal one.
In November 2010, we succeeded in ensuring MK’s matter was put back on the court listings and the Court of Appeal agreed to hear the case. This was in main due to the important human rights issues it raised. Numerous holes were found in the case, and were cited as grounds for the case to be reconsidered; these included MK’s husband, the primary witness, having never been cross-examined.
On Thursday 3rd March 2011, MK’s case was heard by the Court of Appeal.
With dedicated legal support on her side (Simitie Lavaly – then Legal Officer – taking on the case), the case against MK was quickly unraveling. The Court agreed to allow the extension of time to hear the case on human rights grounds, despite the restrictive provisions in the Courts Act 1965. This was a rare act of judicial activism in Sierra Leone, creating a positive precedent now for many other appeal cases, and was the first example of AdvocAid’s involvement in strategic litigation.
The court agreed with the AdvocAid counsels’ representing MK, that various procedural irregularities highlighted in the trial were fundamental and therefore rendered the trial a nullity. The judge overturned the earlier ruling, and the prosecution dropped its case against her
On that day, MK was released from death row, six years after her sentencing and eight years after her imprisonment. She was the longest serving woman on death row in Sierra Leone.
Release was hugely daunting for MK – she was afraid of returning home to her husband and was tragically estranged from her son who had been just eighteen months old when MK was imprisoned. With our support however, she had aspirations. MK had been a student in AdvocAid’s classes whilst on death row and achieved basic literacy and numeracy skills. Upon release, she aspired to start a small business in order to provide herself and her family with an income and wanted to take tailoring and catering courses.
We have continued to work closely with MK, providing her with vital post-prison support and supported her through vocational training school. Today, in 2015, we are still in touch with her and supporting her dreams.
MK’s case is tragically not a one off. AdvocAid has worked with four other women on death row to provide them with the legal representation they deserve. We have succeeded in securing release for all four of them.