By Allieu Sahid Tunkara and Janet A. Sesay
Investigators in the Sierra Leone Police are constrained by the suspension of court sittings by the Chief Justice (CJ), Baba Tunde Edwards, Head of the judiciary of the Republic of Sierra Leone.
The suspension which was scheduled to last for a month was slammed by the CJ when one of the inmates tested positive for COVID-19.
The virus is highly contagious and deadly in nature and it is a source of constant worry for state authorities.
By virtue of the suspension, magistrates and judges would not preside over matters for a month while prisoners remain indoors.
The shutting down of courts by the Chief Justice owing to a pandemic is seen as the first in decades in the judicial history of Sierra Leone.
The police have a legal mandate to arrest, investigate and detain suspects for three days for minor offences and ten days for felonious crimes.
For the past weeks, they have not been able to perform their functions as provided by law as there is no magistrate and judge to preside over their matters.
Assistant Superintendent (ASP), Samuel Saio Conteh is the Deputy Head of police Media.
He confirms to this medium that police investigators are constrained by the suspension of court sittings.
“Owing to the suspension of court sittings, the Sierra Leone Police investigators have been left to search for other options as alternatives to detention of suspects,” he said.
The strategies currently employed by the SLP, ASP Conteh says, informal resolution, making use of the Community Relations Department and strategic Communication.
“In the informal resolution, we call parties to the case and amicably resolve the matter based on the agreement of the two parties. Also, the Community Relations and strategic Communications is about meeting the people and educate them on the need to avoid crime,” ASP Conteh emphasised.
Deputy Head of police media is highly hopeful that with the public education campaign on crime, the number of crime reports will be reduced to an appreciable level.
However, the informal resolution method works well for minor offences and not for capital ones.
“We cannot do informal resolution for capital offences as we have no alternative but to detain them,” he said.
Moreover, the old system of detention order used by divisional crime officers to detain police suspects in correctional facilities is currently non-existent.
The age-old system was considered abusive of fundamental rights of suspects and has been avoided.
The condemnation bothers on the right to presumption of innocence of any person accused of having committed a crime.
It is unclear how long high-profile crime suspects could be held in police custody in the face of legal obligations placed on law enforcers compounded by the absence of court sittings.
However, a senior police officer at the Central Police Division sounds less bothered with the suspension of court sittings owing to the low number of reported crimes.
“Since COVID-19 pandemic came into the country, there have not been serious crimes committed by the people. We are only having reports of minor cases at the police station and there is no congestion of suspects in cells,” the senior officer said.
For serious offences, the senior officer says, the police investigate them, but decline to show where they take the matters for adjudication.
The senior police officer could not also rule out bail as one of the methods they currently employ to normalise the situation.
“The police have granted bail to all suspects for minor offences although the matters are under investigation,” he said.
The decision by the CJ to suspend court sittings has been widely opposed by a number of Sierra Leoneans.
Most members of the public say a single case of COVID-19 is not enough to close down the courts considering the sensitive nature of their judicial function.
It is also widely believed that the decision to shut down the courts was partly responsible for the riots at the Pa Demba Road Male Correctional facility that led to the loss of lives.
However, the public Relations officer for the Sierra Leone Judiciary, Moses Lamin Kamara defends the action of the Chief Justice.
“The decision made by the Chief Justice is a wise decision. Assuming that the court did not shut down operations after the COVIOD-19 case was detected, the virus would have spread to other inmates in the correctional centre,” he said.
In his address to the nation, President Maada Bio personally appealed to the Chief Justice to reconsider his action.
The appeal by the President is not unconnected to the need for speedy, but fair trial of all those who incited and participated in widespread riots that nearly collapsed the security of the state.
By Allieu Sahid Tunkara and Janet A. Sesay