21-Day Detention is Unlawful

Sierra Leone’s Principal law enforcement agency, Sierra Leone Police has come under fire on several occasions for over-detention of suspects in police custody. Many human rights expert say over detention is unlawful detention which must be challenged in the Supreme Court.

The law makes it clear that the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction to interpret constitutional provisions. The SLP is a legal entity set up by the constitution of the land which has the power to sue and to be sued. It derives its powers and legitimacy from section 155 of the Constitution of Sierra Leone, Act No.6 of 1991.

As a body set up by the constitution, it is charged with the responsibility of enforcing laws made by parliament so that peace can be maintained. Owing to the sensitive role SLP plays in the maintenance of state security, its personnel are professionally trained to live up to the task. The police are trained on various topics including arrest procedures, statement taking, investigation, evidence collection techniques and most importantly routine duties.

The professional training given to police officers is to ensure that they exhibit professionalism in the execution of their duties. The police, by virtue of their actions, have deviated from the professional standards required of them. The SLP has shown the most unprofessional conduct in two fundamental areas of their job which are arrest and detention.

The two concepts are interrelated as police officer who arrests unlawfully is bound to detain unlawfully. Again, a person can arrest lawfully and detain unlawfully if the detention period prescribed by the law is not complied with. Sierra Leone being a civilised, democratic state takes pride in a constitution that dedicates an entire section on arrest and detention.

The two areas are ones where police, most times, interfere with the fundamental rights of persons and confrontations are bound to occur. Section 17 of the 1991 constitution is restrictive of state agents with unprofessional tendencies in the day-to-day arrest and detention of persons suspected of crimes.

The section prohibits police authorities to unjustifiably deprive any person’s personal liberty except authorised by law. Subsection 3 of the same section prescribes the minimum and maximum detention periods of suspects in police custody. The subsection says any person who is arrested or detained and has not been released shall be speedily brought before a court of law.

It further qualifies the period in which suspects can spend in police custody for capital and minor offences. It says a suspect can spend up to 10 days for felonious or capital offences and seventy hours for minor ones.

“Any Person who is arrested…shall be brought before a court of law within ten days from the date of arrest in cases of capital offences, offences carrying life imprisonment and economic and environmental offences and within seventy-two hours of his arrest in case of other offences,” the provision reads. The provision is very much germane to the Rule of law philosophy expounded by Professor A.V. Diecy in his book: “The Law Of the Constitution.”

The erudite Professor conceptualised the principle of the Rule Of Law as the activities, processes and programmes of government are bound with the law and that the law is supreme. The concept is premised on three distinct but interrelated meanings which deserves explanation. Supremacy of the law, equality before the law and recognition and protection of fundamental human rights are the three pillars of the Rule of Law principle.

The first pillar says no one should be made to suffer pain of any kind without a distinct breach of the law, the second pillar preaches equality while the third places obligations on state agents to respect the rights of persons. It is the successful dispensation of police work according to the Rule of Law principle that contemporary states have trained and professional police agencies.

The three pillars expounded by the professor should be noted by the police when executing their duties. The Rule of Law principle was preceded by a prominent historical document known as the Magna Carta Bill of 1215 which laid the foundation for the rule of law processes in civilised states.

It called for respect of individual rights, freedoms and civil liberties of the individual by governing authorities. The idea of the bill was borne in the United Kingdom at the time absolute Monarchs, emperors and dukes reigned in the world.

It was a check to the powers of rulers so that they not would lord it over their people including officers acting on their behalf. The Habeas Corpus writ which is today entrenched in the constitutions of sovereign states was also an idea that emanated from the Uk to prevent leaders from tyranny.

Under the Habeas Corpus, the courts are empowered to order law enforcement authorities to produce persons in their custody to review the legality of their detention. To locally contextualise the Habeas Corpus, a competent judicial authority such as a magistrate or a judge can order a police or prison authority to come to court and justify the detention of any person held in their custody. The tenets and purposes of the Rule of Law and Habeas Corpus have been dealt with a severe blow by the manner in which police officers exercise powers of arrest and detention in a civilised, democratic state like Sierra Leone.

The SLP has been quite incapable of living up to the obligation bestowed on it by the constitution of Sierra Leone which is the norm and the supreme law. The SLP, of recent times, has embarked upon series of over detentions which have amounted to unlawful detentions.

Many of those arrested in recent times have spent over ten days in police custody without charges.

A prominent politician has spent in police cell for over ten days contrary to what the law says. The SLP portrays itself in a way as if it had never benefitted from the restructuring package of the British Commonwealth Community Safety and Security Project which followed immediately after the pronouncement of  late President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.

In 1998, the late President proclaimed that his government wanted to create a police service that would be a credit to the nation. He made it clear that the police service of yester years could not be relied upon to police a civilised and democratic state.

In response to the Presidential proclamation, senior Police officers met at the Officers’ mess at King Tom in Freetown and came up with a policing charter premised on four thematic areas-‘Our Duty,’ ‘Our Priorities,’ ‘Our Values,’ ‘Our Aim.’

In the third thematic area, the SLP assured the people of Sierra Leone that they will value their people and respect their human rights. The SLP high command was of the conviction that by providing human rights oriented police service, they will actualise their aim of seeing a reborn police profession.

The actions of the SLP for the past two years are not in line with the legal obligations bestowed on them and the commitment they owe in the policing charter. Their deficiencies have been laid bare by the manner in which they handle suspects in their custody especially political suspects.

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