By Amin Kef-Ranger
In a Press Statement dated 4th July, 2022 and issued by Legal Link, with Lawyer Rashid Dumbuya as the Executive Director, it was stated that the organization has followed with keen interest the pre, during and after- maths of the nationwide women protests held in agitation of the rising inflation, fuel prices and economic hardship in the country.
It was also mentioned that the rights based organization notes also the arrest and detention of Femi Claudius Cole and Dennis Bright, two key political heavyweights in the nation’s body politic and a few others by the Sierra Leone Police.
Added was that while Legal Link admit that there could have been omissions in following due process as required under the Public Order Act of 1965 regarding protests and demonstrations, it is however vital to pinpoint that democratic policing requires the police in such a situation to adopt a human rights- based approach to dealing with the situation given the incessant hardship, inflation, sky rocket prices in fuel, goods and services and economic strangulation eclipsing the nation at the moment.
The organization furthered that also worthy to mention is that fact that public assemblies and protests are essential to the proper functioning of democracy.
“ The right of public assembly gives the individual an access to a public forum for expression of views and provides a mechanism for individuals to take action as a group,” it was mentioned as well as adding how the right to assemble is closely linked to the rights of freedom of speech and freedom of association.
The organization stated that under International law, the right to engage in participatory democracy, ‘without unreasonable restrictions’ is clearly acknowledged by Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
It mentioned that notwithstanding that, however, the rights of protesters in Sierra Leone both in time past and in the now, have been violated in many protest situations, and the Police have used arbitrary arrests and detention, imposition of stiff bail conditions to deny rights to peaceful assembly and protests arguing how such an act by the Police in Sierra Leone amounts to a contravention of international law.
Legal Link pointed out that since Sierra Leone is a democratic nation, protests become an important part of participatory democracy saying if activism and peaceful protests are under threat, then the human rights of citizens and the soul of democracy is subsequently under threat.
“Promoting and protecting all human rights, including the right to assemble and protest is therefore an important and valuable undertaking that the Government of Sierra Leone should always cherish and comply with,” the organization stated adding that under international human rights law, the State has the obligation to protect, respect, fulfill and promote the human rights of its citizens.
“The state is the duty bearer while the citizens remain the right holders,” it argued.
It was stated that with high inflation rate, increased poverty, rise in the prices of fuel, goods and services, low income and a polarized society, escalating force by the Police to quell down peaceful protests will lead to more violence, not less.
According to the organization it will also tend to create feedback loops where protesters may escalate against Police and police escalate even further, with both sides becoming increasingly angry and afraid of each other.
The organization said in moments like these, de-escalation strategies are definitely needed. Citing an instance, Legal Link said for the public to learn that the police did not only detain her but also embark on searching the home of Femi Claudius Cole for possible guns and ammunition is not helpful to de-escalating the tensions already engulfing the nation.
Legal Link pointed out that Anne Nassauer, a professor of sociology in Berlin did some studies on how the Berlin Police Department handles protests and soccer matches.
It said she found out that one key element is transparent communication—something Nassauer said helps increase trust and diffuses potentially tense moments.
The organization revealed how the Berlin Police employs people specifically to make announcements in those situations, using different speakers, with local accents or different languages, for things like information about what Police are doing and appealing for non- violence during the protests. Either way, it was stated, the messages are delivered in a calm, respectful measured voice and disposition.
“This strategy in dealing with protesters was to provide a platform for police officers to talk with demonstrators, engage, ask them why they are protesting, listen to their concerns and above all, empathize,” the organization maintained.
It was also pointed out that such is the democratic policing strategy that is desirable at the moment in Sierra Leone and they are calling on the Government to impress that on the leadership of the Sierra Leone Police going forward; and further create the enabling environment for more engagement, consultations and inclusive participation in addressing the “economy holocaust” that has engulfed the nation in recent times.
Legal Link said with almost 11 months remaining for the holding of general elections in the country, it would not only amount to an own goal but also a counter- productive strategy for the Government to be allowing the Police to violate fundamental human rights at will and also show outright disdain and insensitivity to the plights of the citizens.
It suggested that a change of result certainly requires a change of approach.
“Don’t also forget that the International community is watching and taking stock of the violations,” Legal Link sounded a note of caution calling on the Bio- led Government to ensure the immediate release of Femi Claudius Cole, Dennis Bright and all other female protesters held in detention as a result of the peaceful nation- wide protests.