Many Sierra Leonean women who are unable to repay small debts end up in prison for want of decent legal representation after their creditors report them to the police, meaning that civil disputes turn into criminal cases.
An estimated 10 percent of all charges issued by the Sierra Leonean police involve the failure to repay small debts.
The criminalization of debt upsets the livelihoods of the accused who are mostly petty traders. Their children at times are forced to live with them in detention and their incarceration often breaks up families and deepens poverty, said Advocaid, a Sierra Leonean civil society group helping women and children offenders.
Ignorance of legal rights and an outdated law contribute to the trend in which debt disputes turn into criminal cases. The crime of “fraudulent conversion” is based on Sierra Leone’s 1916 Larceny Act. The charge relates to a person’s inability to repay debts.
“Why are you serving a five-year prison sentence when you owe somebody just US$100,” Advocaid’s interim director Simitie Lavaly told IRIN. “By just providing a lawyer you can save someone’s life.”
In 2006 when Advocaid began offering help to women imprisoned for debt defaulting and other offences, there were 50 women in the main prison in the Sierra Leonean capital Freetown unable to raise bail or afford legal representation, Lavaly said.
“The only reason these people were in prison is because they were poor and could not afford representation. There was no educated person in prison. All of these women are illiterate. Even now the majority of the women in the criminal justice system are illiterate. You are not there because you are a bad person, but because you cannot get legal representation.”
Poverty is widespread in Sierra Leone, which is recovering from a civil war that devastated its people and institutions. The judiciary is inadequately staffed, and has a big backlog of cases, Advocaid said.
Magistrates are overworked and under-trained, there are constant adjournments, missing case files, lack of transport for prisoners to and from court and a shortage of magistrates has created lengthy delays, Amnesty International said in its 2012 state of the world's human rights report.
Many women have been arrested, detained or convicted because of debt issues, noted Advocaid. However, other common offences by Sierra Leonean women include murder, causing serious injury to someone - in many cases their husbands - and public disorder.
Poor understanding of the law
Poor understanding of court procedures and language barriers have resulted in many suspects inadvertently admitting guilt and getting convicted. A 19-year-old woman who spoke to IRIN said she was charged with murder after she accidentally stabbed her husband with a sharp object she was carrying when he fell on top of her while playing. She spent 18 months in a remand prison before her trial started, but was later acquitted.
“I am unhappy about the murder charge because I didn’t have any intention of killing my husband,” she said on condition of anonymity. “The police have to help. They didn’t investigate the case properly. One of the policemen told me that I killed my husband on purpose… I would have been put in jail and I would have been so frustrated and perhaps killed myself.”
Another ex-detainee, who requested not to be identified, told IRIN she was condemned to life in prison for murder after being accused of poisoning her co-wife’s son, but said she was falsely accused. With legal representation, her life sentence was reduced to eight years and she was later released on account of time served.
“The biggest challenge confronting the formal justice system is the public perception that it has been compromised by the executive and lacks independence,” said Ibrahim Tommy, director of the Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law, a Sierra Leonean activist group.
In addition, he explained that there are few state counsels, access to justice both physical - there are few courts and magistrates in a given region - and many cannot afford to hire a lawyer. Most of the country’s lawyers, estimated to be around 500, are in private practice or working for corporations and mainly based in Freetown.
The granting of bail, which is at the discretion of magistrates and judges, has been seen as unfair. In addition, some plaintiffs have been known to fail to turn up to court for hearings once the accused has been detained, thus dragging out cases and crowding prisons.