October 2, 2022

By Allieu S. Tunkara and Janet A. Sesay
Media practitioners from various media institutions were taken aback yesterday when a court order prevented them from covering the trial of Alfred Paolo Conteh, the former Minister of Defence.
Mr Conteh, a key member of the main opposition, All People’s Congress, is answering to charges of treason, unlawful possession of arms and ammunition and other related offences.
The charges were being heard by Magistrate Hannah Bonnie of Pa Demba Road Court in Freetown and later committed to the high court for trial.
No reason was offered by the court why journalists were denied access to Paolo’s trial.
But, heavily armed police officers deployed at the court under the supervision of their superior officers including the Deputy Inspector-General said journalists without ‘Access Pass’ should be deprived entry to the court.
Few journalists who demonstrated an unwavering interest in providing media coverage on Paolo’s trial waited at the court premises with the hope of being called back.
However, they were chased out of the court precincts by Assistant Superintendent of Police, F.M. Tower.
The order seems to have contradicted a decision inter alia taken by the judiciary which issued ‘Access Passes’ to journalists.
The ‘Access Passes’ were signed by the Master and Registrar of the High Court of Sierra Leone, Elaine Thomas Archbald.
They initially guaranteed media practitioners unfettered access to the courts throughout the trial so that society can enjoy the ‘Right to Know’ as long as the trial continues.
The restraining order has caused the public to cast suspicion on the judiciary over the welfare and status of Mr Conteh.
Most who spoke to Nightwatch indicated that all trials must be made public and that the public especially journalists must have access to the trial.
The public view enjoys support from fundamental provisions in the Constitution of Sierra Leone, 1991 which direct that all court hearings must be made public.
Section 23 of the Constitution says:
“All proceedings of every court and proceedings relating to the determination of the existence or the extent of civil rights or obligation before any court or other authority including the announcement the announcement of the decision shall be held in public.”
Mr Conteh’s trial continued on that day as planned and a number of Sierra Leoneans were left wondering about the decision to expel journalists.
A source in the court intimated this medium that the accused, Paolo Conteh refused to take a plea at the High Court owing to inadequate representation.
It is alleged that the presiding judge, Justice Stevens did not allow Paolo’s defence team, except two, to witness the trial and provide the required legal representation.
The source further intimated this medium the accused Paolo Conteh should be represented by only two lawyers.
The judge, according to the source, provided no legal basis for his decision to allow only two lawyers in Mr Conteh’s defence’s team as against the eight counsels prosecuting on behalf of the state.
The numerical imbalance between the state and defence counsels in Stevens’ court has caused the public to suspect the judiciary.
The Sierra Leone Constitution which is the country’s supreme law provides for the defence of the accused, Paolo Conteh.
The same section reads: “Whenever any person charged with a criminal offence shall be permitted to defend himself in person or by a legal practitioner of his own choice.”
The said section does not limit the number of lawyers that should represent the accused as long as he is permitted by law to defend himself.
The accused, Paolo Conteh has been in detention over a month following his arrest for the charges mentioned earlier.
The matter was pending at the magistrate court when it was committed albeit prematurely to the High Court for continuation of the trial.
On 29th April this year, chaos erupted at the Pa Demba Road Central Correctional Facility in Freetown where it was said close to a dozen of prisoners were fatally injured.
The chaos, authorities said, was a product of an attempted jail break to free Paolo Conteh from prison custody.
However, the suspension of court sittings for a month was believed to have caused the riots as the inmates became frustrated with remaining in custody for a month without enjoying the light of a free day.
The one-month suspension was reversed following a personal appeal by the President in a televised speech from the throne.
A number of arrests of key members of the main opposition have been made in the aftermath of the attempted prison breakage including the wife of Mr Conteh, Isatta Saccoh.
She now faces charges of conspiracy to facilitate the escape of Paolo Conteh and unlawful possession of arms and ammunition.
She spent close to three weeks in police detention before she was arraigned in court for trial. No bail was granted her despite application by Isata’s counsel, Wara Serry Kamal.
The other inmates arrested owing to the breakage are now languishing behind bars waiting to be arraigned for trial.
Sierra Leone is currently in a state of emergency since the outbreak of the Corona Virus Disease conferring wider powers on government to take extraordinary measures to defeat the devastating virus.
Suffice it to say, government can take any action against any individual or organisation in the country without being questioned.