Three women currently sit on death row at Pademba Road Prisons, Sierra Leone’s maximum security prison in Freetown are seeking presidential pardon as Independence celebration draws closer.
Behind the prison walls these women’s struggles remain largely unknown. After years of torturous waiting, a Presidential pardon is now perhaps their only hope. ADVOCAID an international female prisoners advocacy group, therefore appeals to President Koroma to grant these women a pardon to remedy the injustice of the mandatory death penalty which operates in a severely under-resourced legal system in a society recovering from years of conflict.
Until recently, Mankaprie alone occupied the cell in Pademba reserved for condemned female prisoners. It was in this cell over a period of months that she began to tell her story, bit by bit, emboldened by the education received in prison and by the fact that people now have time to listen to her. Mankaprie’s story begins on a night in early 2003 when her sickly step-child took a turn for the worse. The family immediately sought help from the local “peppeh” doctor, but by the following afternoon, the child was dead. Mankaprie, her husband and the child’s mother were first taken to the Paramount Chief and then to the nearest Police Station for questioning. It was eventually determined that the baby was murdered. Of the three taken in, only Mankaprie was charged with the child’s murder.
From arrest until shortly before trial, Mankaprie received no legal advice or assistance. Instead, a barely literate woman, trying to find her way out of a terrifying and confusing situation, she trustingly listened to those she thought were trying to help her. This included her husband, himself a suspect. At the police station, Mankaprie was entirely without support, frightened, and under pressure from her husband to say yes to everything the police asked her. She was pregnant and subsequently suffered a miscarriage while in detention. In the end, Mankaprie signed the confession which was later used against her at trial. Mankaprie’s husband and other wife were released.
It was at this point in 2003 that Mankaprie was cast adrift in the Sierra Leone legal system. Her family abandoned her. She had no friends to plead for her and no counsel to speak for her. In the gloom of her condemned cell, Mankaprie states now that she truly had no idea what was happening. It was not until 2005, when she appeared before the High Court, that the State appointed a lawyer to defend her. This overworked lawyer who agreed to take the case on for free was only able to meet with Mankaprie three times, with each meeting lasting approximately 15 minutes. Unsurprisingly, Mankaprie’s defence failed. Despite denying the contents of her confession, she was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death, as required by law. It was only later, when her lawyer explained the outcome that Mankaprie fully understood the verdict and the enormity of what had just happened. After 2 years adrift, her limbo was now at an end.
After the trial, the myriad problems that besiege the Sierra Leonean legal system meant Mankaprie had no lawyer to file a timely appeal. The charitable legal assistance she received months later became bogged down by delays caused by failures in the system. Only in recent months has Mankaprie been given some hope. London-based barristers who agreed to review Mankaprie’s case file pro-bono have highlighted serious problems with the evidence admitted at trial. These problems could give Mankaprie good grounds for contesting her conviction but only if she were to be granted leave to appeal.
Mankaprie’s story is not unique. A lack of education, resources and time meant that none of the three women on death row were ultimately able to mount a proper defence in a barely functioning legal system against a murder charge, which on conviction carries the mandatory sentence of death in Sierra Leone.
Since the Sierra Leonean Truth and Reconciliation Commission found the continued existence of the death penalty on the country’s statute books to be an affront to civilised society, the death penalty has been a topic of popular debate in Sierra Leone. Coupled with the moral arguments for its abolition are the practical ones: internationally, the death penalty has not been found to act as a deterrent to serious crime. Further, the mental stress experienced by those on death row for several years is considered inhumane in other jurisdictions and a breach of a person’s constitutional rights. The Sierra Leonean Constitution is supposed to protect individuals from inhuman punishment, yet Mankaprie has been on death row for 4 years.
Notwithstanding the ten year de facto moratorium on executions, people are still being sentenced to death in Sierra Leone. And there is no guarantee that executions will not resume in future. In a system which seriously lacks physical capacity, can Sierra Leone with good conscience continue to condemn to death those whose proper legal representation it cannot guarantee?
The three condemned women are now pleading to the President for mercy. Deprived and exhausted of almost all legal avenues by a broken system, these three women are left only with hope. They hope that the President will grant them a pardon on Independence Day. If granted, the pardons will in some measure remedy the injustices suffered by these three women. However, Sierra Leone needs to think beyond Independence Day, to its own story and struggle, one which it is hoped will have the courage to include an end to the death penalty and the beginning of a functioning legal aid system.