Maintaining Human and Legal Rights throughout Sierra Leone's Ebola Response
Sierra Leone has until recently been gripped by the world’s deadliest disease, Ebola. Whilst many organisations were forced to cease operations, AdvocAid remained operational, using the opportunity to continue supporting women, and monitor the Government’s Ebola response in terms of human and legal rights. In Jul-2014, the President declared a national State of Emergency (SOE), which led to the introduction of new laws. Fear and power under the SOE led to a number of human rights abuses - including eight political prisoners detained without charge - and regular unconstitutional arrests. AdvocAid led a national campaign to secure the release of eight men and women detained without charge, provided ongoing free legal assistance and representation to women and men, monitored police stations during lockdown periods, provided police stations, courts and correctional centres with prevention material, and secured coverage to raise awareness of the impact Ebola was having on the law.
AdvocAid’s activities sought to ensure the Ebola epidemic didn’t lead to a breakdown in legal justice, or that human rights fell by the wayside. Objectives included:
1. Securing the release of eight people detained without charge (detained on the order of his Excellency)
2. Monitoring police stations during ‘lockdown' periods
3. Educating women on the SOE laws and regulations to increase their protection, and providing ongoing free legal assistance to women and girls in Sierra Leone
4. Preventing an outbreak in police stations, courts and correctional centres (with a high turnover, an outbreak was probable; over half of all people behind bars in Sierra Leone have not been convicted of any crime).
HOW THE OBJECTIVES WERE ACHIEVED
AdvocAid formed a coalition of criminal justice CSOs to campaign for the release of eight men and women, detained with no paperwork, charges or release date. They held a press conference, secured media coverage, lobbied the President and called all legal organisations/representatives to back the campaign.
During the ‘Stay at Home’ campaign (27-29 March), paralegals monitored police stations and provided free legal advice to those arrested; 182 people were supported, with 54% of suspects released.
170 commercial sex-workers and market traders were trained on SOE laws (including trading curfews and no public gatherings) and what their rights were upon arrest. Legal assistance was also provided to women arrested during the SOE.
From Jul-2014 to Nov-2015 AdvocAid provided Police Stations, Courts and Correctional Centres with 30 gallons of Dettol, 68 boxes of gloves, 408 bars of medicated soap, 40 buckets and 217 hand sanitizer bottles. No outbreaks in these institutions were reported.
The Ebola outbreak hit West Africa on an unprecedented scale. Whilst many organisations ceased operations, AdvocAid saw this as their opportunity to step up to the challenge. AdvocAid turned to simple but effective technology to ensure key prevention messages were disseminated; a staff WhatsApp group was used throughout the lockdown monitoring to keep Managers and the Board appraised of progress. WhatsApp groups with other CSOs were also used to share key legal messages. An important new approach for AdvocAid was working with men. Whilst their mandate is to support women, during this critical time AdvocAid also ensured men had legal assistance. This was critical in ensuring the men detained without charge were rightfully released.
Throughout the 18 months of the Ebola epidemic, AdvocAid provided legal assistance and representation to 1,387 people; if their operations had ceased, it is unlikely these individuals would have had access to any legal representation. A high number of those represented were unlawfully arrested, including Isatu, arrested and beaten for breaking curfew (20 minutes before the 6pm curfew). Additionally, eight men and women were released from six months behind bars without charge (two women on 12 April 2015 and six men granted bail in May 2015 (all eight were arrested in October 2014) following AdvocAid’s habeas corpus application). Via the media, AdvocAid increased the profile of the need for legal organisations to remain operational during a SOE, contributing to an Amnesty report that called for Ebola regulations to stop being used to curtail freedom of expression and assembly. AdvocAid’s actions also highlighted the need for the SOE section to be revisited in a proposed new constitution.
AdvocAid faced numerous operational challenges throughout this period, including:
- Programmes being compounded by quarantines affecting movement and access
- Amended public gathering laws affecting training and workshops
- Striving to keep hold of a full workforce – staff put their lives at risk to ensure justice prevailed
- Affected programme budgets due to increases in prices on the ground
- Ebola response funding focused on health and education programming
One of the biggest challenges, is what has happened after the campaign. Sierra Leone’s health infrastructure and education system have been in the media spotlight since the ‘all-clear’ at the end of 2015 (which has recently been retracted following a death on 15 January 2016 from the virus). Little attention however is being paid to the need to invest in the legal infrastructure; there’s a lot that still needs to be invested in, and the justice sector has fallen by the way-side.
This period was full of uncharted territory for AdvocAid and their staff. The key lessons learnt included:
- As a small organisation, how to cope with an emergency (in terms of staffing, procurement, logistics and partnership working) and still provide essential legal services
- The need to speak up on civil liberty issues when nobody else is willing to do so publicly
- Making strong use of the media to share case studies and ensure legal rights becomes a public conversation
- Optimising partnership working to share costs, experience and risk
- The need to be flexible and respond to needs as they arise
- To amend programming activities to provide essential assistance alongside usual planned activities.