On April 12, 2021, Fatmata Binta Bah a student of the Institute of Public Administration and Management (IPAM), was maltreated by police officers deployed at the Institute’s campus to quell a student protest. In a viral video, the police officers were seen dragging and battering the half-naked female student who sustained severe injuries.
Bah was among hundreds??? students protesting over missing grades barely a few days to their graduation. Faced with the ugly prospect of not graduating that year, the students protested what they described as “an administrative blunder” by the university’s administration. A police contingent was called in, and all hell broke loose. With unsubstantiated claims of being verbally attacked and projectiles thrown at them by rioting students, the police fired teargas and assaulted several students, including Fatmata Binta Bah. Bah’s assault attracted widespread condemnation.
Ordinary citizens and human rights organizations in Sierra Leone and the diaspora criticized the police for the use of excessive force on poor unarmed students.
The incident raised further questions about the professionalism of our men in blue, who have earned the notoriety of being uncompromisingly brutal towards citizens. Fatmata and some of her colleagues were arrested and detained. Pressure from distraught parents and the Sierra Leone Human Rights Commission (HRCSL) influenced their release from police custody a few days later.
The press release from HRCSL called on the leadership of the Sierra Leone Police to “immediately” investigate the conduct of the officers for possible sanctions. The press release stated that the police “failed to apply professionalism in handling the situation on their arrival at the scene which led to the manhandling of a female student by several police officers as captured in a video widely circulated on social media…” Fatmata and her colleagues filed a complaint to the Independent Police Complaint Board (IPCB).
As the civilian oversight mechanism of the police, the IPCB was set up to investigate “incidents of injuries, assault or wounding caused by a police officer.” In its findings, the Board concluded that the police response to the IPAM protest was unwarranted and disproportionate. It, therefore, Director recommended that Public Prosecutions ‘considers criminal charges” against two of the perpetrators. A seconded recommendation also held the Deputy Vice Chancellor and the Finance Department culpable, whilst the third recommendation called for the setting up of a University Court to investigate the grievances of students and establish measures to thet would serves as deterrents for future incidents.
As it happened, however, the
student’s quest for justice was thwarted by the decision of the Director of Public Prosecution not to file criminal charges against the defaulting police officers on the grounds that IPCB lacked the authority to dictate to him. The DPP supported his argument with Section 66 (4) of the 1991 Constitution. The said provision gathers strength from Section 46 (1) of the Criminal Procedure Act of 1965, which provides that subject to Section 64(3), the DPP shall have power in any case which “he considers desirable so to do” to: (a) institute and undertake criminal proceedings against any person before any court in respect of any offense against the laws of Sierra Leone. The caveat, “which he considers desirable so to do,” gives the DPP a very wide discretion to choose the cases he can prosecute. This clearly undermines the advancement of justice and the rule of law. Implicitly, The DPP may decide not to prosecute a matter for personal or political reasons on the grounds that the matter is “not desirable to be prosecuted.” Instead, the DPP recommended taking disciplinary actions against the two officers found wanting. Sierraeye was later informed that the matter had been referred to the Head of Complaints Discipline and Internal Investigation Department (CDID), An Administrative Officer at the CDIID, Supt. Patrick Jalloh said the two perpetrators were sent one-month ” corrective training” without pay.
Away from the IPAM incident, we can also refer to the Makeni riot of ……2021, where some trigger-happy officers shot and killed five young men protesting over the removal of the generator from their township by the Electricity Distribution and Supply Agency (EDSA), While the police also made claims about projectiles being thrown at them by rioting youths, they cannot justify the use of live rounds that murdered in blood, young and energetic men among them, a school teacher who received a bullet in the throat. We equally cannot forget similar incidents of police brutality in Tonko Limba, Tombo, Lunsar, Lungi and Freetown. We believe that the absence of an effective legal regime to stem police brutality can only continue to embolden perpetrators who are probably mostly bereft of the fundamental right to freedom of expression, as stated in section 25 (1) of the 1991 constitution. It is also apparent that these police offenders care less that their actions are also in clear violation of Freedom against Torture and Inhuman Treatment. Enforcing rather than violating this right is of existential relevance in ensuring the police remain a force for good.
Therefore, a key recommendation we would make as we conclude is that the discretionary powers of the DPP to persecute complaints must not be the
subject of abuse or exercised to suit the political agenda of any governing regime. There is a need for more visibility and accountability on how the OPP exercises its discretion, in other Countries, guidelines have been promulgated to ensure consistency and bring transparency decision making process to the This is necessary to maintain public confidence in the criminal justice system The IPCB must also be able to make “mandatory recommendations” to the DPP where the circumstances clearly warrant the prosecution of a particular matter. This would make the Board more effective When the DPP refuses to prosecute, there must be some alternative mechanism where the Board can pursue matters through legal representation. Punishment against defaulting officers must be proportionale to the offense committed. As we continue to seek justice for Fatmata Binta Bah, her colleagues and all Sierra Leoneans who have been victims of police brutality, the police need to be reminded of their sacred duty to protect lives and property With an already battered image as a regime serving agency, we can equally conclude that professionalism in the Sierra Leone Police is on the brink. The government and the institutions charged with the responsibility of regulating the activities of the police may choose to ignore these egregious infractions of fundamental human rights and freedoms But who wins?