Sierra Leone: Imprisonment for land rights activists

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"It is urgent to free Sima Mattia, Kinnie James Blango, Musa Sellu, Foday Musa and Lahai Sellu," Shiaka Sama explained.
Green Scenery | 10 March 2016

Sierra Leone: Imprisonment for land rights activists

Thursday 4th February 2016 was a dark moment for all Sierra Leonean land owners and users who try to defend their right to land and livelihood against large scale land acquisition as six anti-land grabbing activists were sent from the High Court directly into prison. Since 16th October 2013 Sima Mattia, Kinnie James Blango, Musa Sellu, Foday Musa, Lahai Sellu and the former Member of Parliament Shiaka Musa Sama had faced an ongoing trial on orchestrated charges of incitement, conspiracy to commit a crime and the destruction of 40 growing plants of Socfin Agricultural Company Sierra Leone. Right from the start, all of the now convicted had pleaded not guilty.

The Belgian-Luxembourgish consortium Socfin is establishing plantations in Sierra Leone to produce palm oil for export. Since 2011, the local population is standing up to intimidation and imprisonment and continuing to protest against the destruction of natural areas and land grabbing by Socfin and the national authorities. The six men who have been convicted now stood up for their right to land and livelihood as executive members of the Malen Affected Land Owners and Users Association (MALOA).

Now that the anti-land grabbing activists were found guilty, five of them have to pay thirty million leones (over $5,000) each or to stay in jail for five months. MALOA’s spokesperson, Shiaka Musa Sama, was asked to pay sixty million Leones (over $10,000) in order not to spend six months in prison. Thanks to people around the globe who have shown their solidarity and their readiness to help others the funds for the release of Shiaka Musa Sama were raised. He was released on February 24, 2016. Joseph Rahall, Executive Director of the Sierra Leonean Non-Governmental Organisation Green Scenery, spoke to the activist after his release.

Mister Sama, you were released from prison on February 24. Could you tell us about your experiences during your imprisonment? How do you feel today?

As you can imagine, today I feel much better than during the twenty days I had to stay in prison. Likewise, I feel thankful. Many people in Sierra Leone and around the globe are supporting us in our struggle. Public actions have taken place in Ivory Coast, Cambodia, Cameroon and Belgium. Many more men and women are helping us by signing our petitions and by supporting our fundraising. Prison life is tough. I mean everything you can think of. Let us say, the situation in prison reflects the backward condition of the country. Therefore, it is urgent to free Sima Mattia, Kinnie James Blango, Musa Sellu, Foday Musa and Lahai Sellu. We decided all together, that I would leave prison first to do the best I can in defending our cause – and it was not an easy decision. Now it is high time for them to join me in freedom.

What are the next steps to be taken to support them? Do you get any news from them?

Fortunately, I get news from them. Visitors are allowed every day, except Sundays or public holidays, and friends and family have been providing us with food and water twice a day since the day of our imprisonment and they are continuing in doing so. All in all the communities are giving a lot of support and they even participated in the fundraising for the release. And yet it is important to keep in mind that the people of Malen Chiefdom do not have a lot to give, as they have lost their land and therewith their livelihood – and those who work for Socfin today do not earn a lot of money.

When I left prison, I made sure that the others will be supplied with food and water for the next weeks. We are now facing two main challenges: One is to raise enough money to make sure that the others are released from prison as soon as possible. The other one is to make sure that their families are well taken care of as long as the men are in prison. We should not forget that they had to leave their wives and children
behind.

On February 4, 2016 the verdict was announced in the High Court of Bo. At this point an over biennial trail against you and five other members of MALOA came to an end. What is your opinion about the proceedings and the final decision of the judge?

"Since 2013 we have been in front of the court over 40 times. You really stop counting one day."
Since 2013 we have been in front of the court over 40 times. You really stop counting one day. We have pleaded not guilty from the beginning, but nobody seemed to be listening. Two out of seven witnesses are policemen, another three are directly or indirectly related to Socfin. Now, we have to pay 210 million Leones and therewith the High Court imposed a sentence that is very much consistent with the company’s estimated value of the destroyed trees. Despite the fact that Socfin only paid 1 million Leones (less than $200) for each acre of 60 palm trees including the land on which they grew, they valued the 40 destroyed trees minus the land at 200 million Leones ($36,000). What can I say? I have the feeling, the rules of the game have been made by someone else.

All of you had pleaded not guilty. Against this background, are you planning to appeal the judgment?

I speak for all of us when I say that we are afraid to go to court again. For us, the judicial system of Sierra Leone has proven to be corrupt and unreliable. Although the whole world seems to be waiting for an appeal, we really fear to expose ourselves again to all those powerful people within Socfin and the Chiefdom who have not been satisfied with the verdict as they wanted to keep us in jail much longer. We expect them to use every given opportunity to punish us even harder for our advocacy work for the people. We are currently discussing the possibilities, risks and chances in terms of an appeal with our lawyer. As soon as the others are released from prison, there will be a concluding discussion about the topic. Together with our families and all members of the affected communities, we will then decide together if we are willing to restart the trial.

Mister Sama, what are your most urgent demands to Socfin and the authorities? What do you want to tell them?

It is time to put our demands back on the table. We want to dialogue with Socfin and the local authorities. This is a position we have always maintained. Together, we can revisit the agreement and the entire operation of Socfin to identify the things that have gone wrong. I am sure, collectively we can come up with a formula that will ensure a win-win outcome. This is critical for a peaceful co-existence and development. We are not against investment but we want to make sure that any investment becomes beneficial to us and does not make us poorer. All forms of intimidation are bound to fail. The best option is sincere dialogue that would reverse the ugly and unsustainable situation in Malen Chiefdom.

Green Scenery and MALOA both are members of the Action for Large scale Land Acquisition Transparency (ALLAT). ALLAT was established in 2012 to ensure a transparent and accountable land governance system in Sierra Leone.

Account details:
Bank name: Rokel Commercial Bank
Account name: Emergency Trust Fund
Account No: 02-01-1098361-01
BIC: RCBKSLFR
IBAN: 002-001-002-1098361-90 
Original source: Green Scenery
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