Sylvia And Muckson Case: The Truths, Facts, Human Rights Abuses…
Updated: May 25, 2020
We are deeply concerned about the continued incarceration of Dr Sylvia Blyden, since 1st May 2020, in Freetown high-security prison under harsh conditions amid her deteriorating state of health, after she was “kidnapped” and “dragged’’ out of her family home in Freetown by armed security forces. The arbitrary arrest and the subsequent detention of Dr Blyden were connected to trumped-up charges brought against her by the government after she called on Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio to respect democracy, human rights, and to take more appropriate measures to tackle COVID 19, in the public interest.
The establishment of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), following 11 years of bitter civil conflict, was appropriate, necessary and highly significant for the healing of a traumatised nation. The report of the TRC highlighted the government corruption during the years leading up to the conflict, the desecration of the constitution, the perpetuation of injustice and the pillaging of the country's wealth. The Commission called upon the Ministry of Justice, including judges and lawyers, to defend the rule of law (paragraph 176 of the TRC). The Commission’s findings challenge us, as a nation, to learn from the past and to reinforce the belief that the past cannot, and must not, be forgotten. This is the time for the country to come together to promote a prosperous and united Sierra Leone guided by unity, freedom and justice. Everyone is needed to come on board and have a voice in the governance of the country, regardless of tribal and political affiliations.
Arbitrary Arrest, Detention.
Dr. Sylvia Olayinka Blyden was detained, following her arbitrary arrest on Friday, 1 May 2020, at 1:15pm (SL time), after being restricted in her home for several hours under armed security barricade.
Human rights groups reported an alarming pattern of the Police Force deploying reckless and indiscriminate tactics, including while arresting Dr Blyden at her home, as well as conclusive evidence of torture and other ill-treatment. The Police forcefully entered with a team of engineers to break into the residence of Dr Blyden where she had taken refuge. While detained at the CID, Dr Blyden’s phones and laptop were forcefully taken from her.
Following allegations printed by the Publisher of Awareness Times newspaper, stating that Dr Sylvia Blyden was arrested because of her critical and controversial publications and postings on social media, the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) visited the Police Criminal Investigations Department (CID) on 2 May 2020 at approximately 5pm to inquire as to the actual charges against her. The investigator dealing with Dr Sylvia Blyden's case, Mr M. K. Allieu, could not explain to SLJA the charges against her as they were "still investigating". He also said they had taken Dr Blyden's mobile phone and personal computers and submitted them to the Cyber Unit. He further stated that they had not granted Dr Blyden bail because "her case is very serious" and that further investigations were underway. However, SLAJ President Mr Ahmed Sahid Nasralla and the Secretary General of SLAJ were allowed to see Dr Blyden in her cell for about 10 minutes. The SLAJ reported that “Dr Blyden told us that she was “captured” and “kidnapped” from her residence and was never informed that she was under arrest.” She explained that the Police had not told her why she was being held in custody, other than being asked “why I was so critical of the government and writing to incite the populace.” Dr Blyden further explained that she had spent the previous night “with hard core criminals brought in from the Pademba Road Correctional Centre in a cell specifically meant for females.”
Arbitrary Detention of Dr Blyden’s driver
Following the arrest of Dr Blyden, a family member described the terrible conditions of the female cells in the prison where Dr Blyden is detained. As a measure of protection from exposure to the coronavirus, Dr. Blyden requested to be provided with a long-sleeved shirt and a pillow. The lock-up officers then gave the go–ahead for Dr Blyden's driver to pick up a long-sleeve shirt and pillow from her house and bring it to the lock-up area. On arrival of the driver in her car, accompanied by her neighbour's son who had come along with the driver, both the driver and the young boy were allowed to hand over the pillow and shirt to the lock-up officer and the items were taken to Dr Blyden in her cell. As the driver was moving the car to drive out of the CID compound, he was halted, asked to come out of the jeep and then accused of LOITERING. He was then ordered to park the jeep and he and the neighbour’s son were force-marched into the prison cells and locked up on charges of loitering. They spent 24 hours in the cell before they were released from detention.
19-year-old Hussain Muckson Sesay, who is a prominent child rights activist for the Children’s Forum Network, was also arbitrary arrested and detained on the 3rd May 2020. Both Dr Blyden and child activist Muckson were locked in solitary confinement and being held for many days in a police cell where they slept on a dirty floor with only a bucket to be used for urine and excrement which was left to accumulate in the most unsanitary manner.
Trumped-up charges under the Sierra Leone Public Order Act 1965.
The powerful female journalist, activist and women’s leader, Dr Sylvia Olayinka Blyden was charged on the 22nd May 2020 at a Freetown Magistrate Court with offences of seditious libel under section 33 (1) (a) and (b) of the Public Order Act No 46 of 1965. The charge included ten counts including three counts for a message she posted on Facebook about the unsanitary prison conditions of certain suspects held in prison cells with buckets of urine and excrement; one count for posting on Facebook that President Bio travels frequently unannounced; two counts for an audio message she sent on WhatsApp shortly before she was arrested stating that her phone numbers should be deleted from all WhatsApp groups.
The 19-year-old, child right activist, Hussain Muckson Sesay, was charged on one count for allegedly taking a photo of Dr Blyden’s police interview and publishing it on Facebook. He denied the allegation.
Dictatorial government officials use the Public Order Act laws mainly against journalists and activists and the prospect of their use instills fear in the minds of people across the country. There is an urgent need to end the tyrannical criminal defamation laws, which unduly restrict freedom of expression. There are calls in Sierra Leone for the repeal of Part V of the 1965 Public Order Act dealing with libel laws.
The struggle for the rights and freedoms of all Sierra Leoneans was at the very heart of the fight for independence from Britain. The people of Sierra Leone deserve freedom so that all citizens can live in peace and without fear of intimidation. People should be free to join any political party or group without intimidation regardless of their tribe or political affiliation. The Constitution of Sierra Leone guarantees the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and movement, and prohibits torture at all times. Sierra Leone has ratified international treaties which guarantee these rights.
Humans rights groups have urged the Sierra Leone Government to prioritise the principles of freedom of expression and the defence of journalism in its treatment of Dr Blyden, and to act in accordance with Sierra Leone law and the country’s international human rights obligations.
Bail refused in court.
The State prosecution objected to a bail application submitted by Dr Sylvia Blyden at the Magistrate Court and remanded in prison, without any justified reason other than the usual vague police objections. Some of the reasons provided by the State for refusing bail were that the offences carry substantial sentences of imprisonment if convicted; and the presumption that the accused would interfere with witnesses and investigations if released on bail.
Muckson was also refused bail and remanded in prison.
This treatment appears to contravene the principles of necessity and proportionality envisaged by the human rights standards.
It is important to recall that Dr. Sylvia Olayinka Blyden was first held in Police custody, for 22 days without any charges being preferred to the courts against her person. Section 17 (3) (a) of Sierra Leone 1991 constitution states “Any person who is arrested and detained for the purpose of bringing that person before a court or tribunal and who is not released, shall be brought before a court of law within ten days from the date of arrest.” This applies to all capital offences, offences carrying life imprisonment and economic and environmental offences. The constitution also makes provision under sub-section 3(b) for the person to be charged to court within seventy-two hours of his or her arrest in cases such as the charges against Dr Blyden. In any of the aforementioned instances, charges must have been preferred against Dr. Blyden, if she had a case to answer, and not to be held for 22 days without charge. For the State to have subjected her person under detention without charge for 22 days is a clear denial of her constitutional rights and contrary to the due process of law.
“Authorities in Sierra Leone must put an end to the current spate of violence, destruction of lives and properties, and arbitrary arrest and detention of Dr Sylvia Blyden,” Amnesty International Sierra Leone said in a statement. Amnesty International Executive Director in Sierra Leone, Solomon Sogbandi, has further stated, “The arrest and detention of Sylvia Blyden are arbitrary. (Her) rights are violated, and (she) should be discharged if there are no charges against (her) and also should be bailed pending investigations. We are calling for (her) immediate release.”
Deteriorating health conditions
Dr Blyden made personal representation in court on the 22 May 2020 and submitted credible medical evidence concerning her poor health conditions, yet she was refused bail.
Rights groups are concerned that Dr Blyden’s deteriorating health will have serious impacts that may prove life-threatening. After visiting Dr Blyden in Police custody on 8 May, human rights organisations reported that Dr Blyden had been deliberately exposed to inhumane and degrading treatment that could be described as psychological torture.
Reports are that both Dr Blyden and Muckson are unwell and urgently need access to proper food and medication. While in Police custody, Dr Blyden has been held in confinement, sleeping on the bare floor, without food or medication in a cold and filthy cell lacking proper clothing.
Furthermore, no protective measures from COVID-19 were taken during the interrogations and statement-taking that lasted for several hours, including while in Police custody.
Unsanitary prison conditions
In a report submitted to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and other international organisations, journalists and human rights groups describe the treatment of Dr Blyden and Muckson as “psychological torture, inhumane and degrading.”
There are reports of casualties after a riot at a Prison in Freetown where a COVID-19 case was earlier confirmed. Prisoners reportedly rioted, killing a number of people and setting the jail ablaze.
According to a U.S. State Department human rights report, the Freetown Pademba Road Prison, designed to house 324 inmates, held over 2,000 prisoners in 2019, under conditions described as harsh and life-threatening.
Poor hygiene, overcrowding and extreme violence are just a few of the horrific problems that have been reported in Sierra Leone’s prison system. These horrendous living conditions are a serious breach of human rights, and contribute to the rampant spread of diseases, such as TB, malaria, AIDS and other diseases.
Family & legal representation
Armed Police Offices entered the residence of Dr Sylvia Blyden and took over the waiting room area. They remained there for several days. The Police have conducted this unlawful exercise without due regard to the privacy of the family home and no contact was made with Dr Blyden ’s family, including her aged mother in London who is deeply concerned about her beloved daughter (Dr Sylvia Blyden).
The country was under a State of Emergency and lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic and during that period lawyers and family members were not able to see Dr Blyden and Muckson. This is clearly a violation of their human rights.
In a letter to the British Members of Parliament, Dr Blyden’s aged mother, Mrs Sylvia E J Blyden, strongly states that her daughter is in prison for standing up for her democratic and human rights. “My daughter, Sylvia, has high ambition to work for the good of all citizens of Sierra Leone. She is outspoken and fervent in her desire to ensure that the voiceless gets a voice through her writings as an international journalist and her forthright speeches are all intended to ensure that democracy and the rule of law prevail within the borders of Sierra Leone. We are appealing for any and every intervention that can assist us in securing her immediate release and preventing further harm to her physical and mental health.’
Legal team and campaign for her release
Dr Sylvia Blyden is frustrated with the legal system and has indicated that she would personally represent herself in court with or without a lawyer, as she felt she has not committed any crime and has described her detention as unlawful. Dr Sylvia Blyden represented herself on her first appearance at the Freetown Magistrate Court
A team of lawyers have agreed to provide legal assistance to Dr Blyden and are supporting Hussain Muckson Sesay. The Pipul Pikin Network has also consulted with and retained the legal services of a number of lawyers, including international human rights lawyers and a team from the Legal Resources Centre in Sierra Leone.
Local and Global Support
It would be expected that this champion for democratic and human rights, now incarcerated in a Freetown prison, would be enjoying supportive banner headlines in local and international media outlets. Thus far, however, coverage of Dr Sylvia Blyden’s plight has been muted. Why?
Like the rest of the world, Sierra Leone is facing a dangerous crisis and the coronavirus pandemic shows no signs of abating. The seemingly endless flow of dire headlines have overwhelmed people from all walks of life, triggering inherent survival mechanisms and leading people to prioritise their health and wellbeing. Due to the void created by such uncertainty and tension, state authorities may be motivated by political interests to consolidate power and use emergency laws to violate human rights.
Despite protests from citizens and human rights groups, the Sierra Leone Parliament voted to give President Julius Maada Bio the power to rule by decree for the duration of the crisis. The declaration of a state of emergency is especially dire because the avenues for organisation, protest and civic engagement—all fundamental human rights—have been curtailed by the lockdown, curfew and quarantine measures. Rights groups, media, and political leaders have widely condemned the use of the state of emergency to violate human rights. The Sierra Leone police have a history of rights abuses, including during law enforcement operations, and the officers involved are rarely investigated or held to account.
Such is the fear created by state authorities that civil society and human rights bodies are afraid to speak up in the face of flagrant violations of human rights. In addition, members of a particular women’s group were refused access to see Dr Blyden in police custody.
So much of what has been reported in the media about this case is false and misleading. The facts have been utterly distorted by the Government and subsequently misreported by numerous people and institutions affiliated with the Government.
Dr Blyden’s case has suffered from her falling-out with several people connected to the Government who view her as a threat for her efforts in speaking out against human rights abuses. At this point, personal feelings about Dr Blyden’s case must be put to one side. The far-reaching implications of this case have hugely significant implications for the future of the journalistic trade and for activism in the country. The actions taken by the Police and security forces may relate specifically to one woman’s situation but, should they succeed, they would set a terrible precedent. The aim is to prevent journalists and activists from speaking the truth and from having a public platform. This means that press freedom is at risk, and we should not be persuaded to let this pass because of personal history regarding this specific case.
All eyes are on State authorities, journalists and activists – national, regional and local – to see if they are able to come to grips with this case in court, and then to issue a considered statement. At the same time, all voices are urgently needed to alert people from across the world and pressure politicians, in order to highlight the injustice of this prosecution and to clearly explain it’s immediate and long-term importance for the rule of law in Sierra Leone. This is not about the work of an individual activist but concerns the freedoms of all citizens in the country. Let us come together and stick to the principles. If the legal prosecution of Dr Blyden goes ahead, then unity, freedom and justice will be the victims.
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Background in Journalism, activism & nation building
Dr Sylvia Olayinka Blyden
Dr Sylvia Blyden took an interest in journalism, activism and contributions to nation-building at a young age. She represented Sierra Leone's Female Youths in Beijing during the 1995 United Nations Women's Conference, and was chosen by her African peers to deliver the Female Youths of Africa Speech on 11 August 1995.
Dr Sylvia Olayinka Blyden is a prominent Sierra Leone gender activist, journalist & health advocate. Dr Blyden is the founder, CEO and publisher of the Sierra Leonean newspaper Awareness Times. She is the only female news publisher in Sierra Leone, and "one of the most recognisable names in the country." Following her 24-Hours Internet Cafes, she launched a news media site in 2005 known as Awareness Times, which is generally considered critical of the excesses of government and state institutions, including the former President, Ernest Bai Koroma and current President Maada Bio.
A Goodwill Ambassador for Sierra Leone's Children, Dr Sylvia Blyden has been a Youth and Women's Rights Activist for several years.
Dr Blyden remains the youngest ever Sierra Leonean to be nationally honoured with an Officer of the Rokel insignia, conferred on 27 April 2007 Independence Day, in recognition of her meritorious service to the Nation.
Dr Blyden holds a BSc with Honours in Basic Medical Sciences; a Bachelor of Medicine, and a Bachelor of Surgery (MBChB) making her a trained and qualified Medical Doctor for the past 24 years, and she has undertaken media training and has been involved in journalism and ITC for many years.
Dr Blyden was a guest lecturer at an event on ebola, organised in partnership with the Commonwealth and Chatham House in London. She was very much involved in ending the ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone and has a good track record of campaigning for better health, for women, youth and children in Sierra Leone. She also served as a former Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children's Affairs.
Many people see Dr Sylvia Blyden as a heroic figure and a defender of democratic and human rights, supporting the public’s right to know the truth at great personal cost. The far-reaching implications of this case against her have grave and enormous significance for the future of the journalistic trade in Sierra Leone. These offences may relate specifically to one woman’s activities but, should they succeed, they would set a terrible precedent with serious implications for all.
Hussain Muckson Sesay
Hussain Muckson Sesay is 19 years of age and studies Engineering at Fourah Bay College (FBC). He was a dedicated member of the Children’s Forum Network and contributed greatly towards the cause of promoting children’s rights in Sierra Leone. In September 2016, Muckson represented the children of Sierra Leone at the 73rd Session of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, in Geneva, Switzerland. Muckson is an emerging young leader with tremendous potential to contribute to the development of Sierra Leone.
Children and young people from across the country and from different children and youths organisations, including the associate members of the Children's Forum Network-CFN, have expressed serious concerns about Muckson’s safety and well-being.
Arbitrary arrest and detention of Hussain Muckson Sesay
Immediately after the arrest of Dr Blyden, strange phone calls were being made to the associates, employees and known aides of Dr Blyden, threatening that if any of them went to the CID to see her, they would be locked up. Already two people (Dr Blyden’s driver and the son of her neighbour) were locked up for so-called LOITERING, causing fear among others and preventing them from attempting to visit Dr Blyden at the CID. This presented a serious dilemma for Melron Nicol-Wilson, the lawyers who had been arranging for her food and clothing in detention. Accordingly, Melron Nicol-Wilson decided to turn to a Youth Activist known as Hussain Muckson Sesay. Mr. Sesay who is 19 years of age is an Engineering student at FBC and when he was approached by Melron Nicol-Wilson, he volunteered to stay in the outside self-contained room in Dr Blyden’s compound during the three-day lockdown for coronavirus, to enable him take food and clothing to Dr Blyden on a daily basis. Melron Nicol-Wilson officially informed the CID that the contact person who would be providing food and clothing to Dr Blyden during the LOCKDOWN was 19-year-old Hussain Muckson Sesay.
Melron formally introduced Hussain to the CID and that same day, 2 May 2020, Hussain Muckson Sesay was allowed to take food for Dr Blyden’s dinner. The police even drove Hussain Muckson Sesay back home to Dr Sylvia Blyden’s house so that the police driver would know where to pick up Hussain Muckson Sesay for further food deliveries to Dr Blyden during the three-day LOCKDOWN that was set to start the next day, on 3 May 2020. Indeed, on the 3rd of May 2020, which was the 1st day of the lockdown, the police went to Dr Blyden’s compound to pick up Hussain Muckson Sesay and drove with Hussain to the Brookfield’s residence of Dr Blyden’s Aunty who was preparing her breakfast. They picked up the breakfast and the police driver drove with Hussain and the food to the CID. On arrival at the CID, Hussain was asked to hand over his phone and all the contents of his pockets and to only go up to the female cells with the food for Dr Blyden. Hussain diligently obeyed and handed over the entire contents of his pockets, which included his phone. He was informed by the female police officer at the female cells that Dr. Blyden was having a bath and he should sit and wait. After waiting with the food for some minutes, Hussain was asked to just leave the food with the female police woman and go back downstairs as the police driver needed to do other errands and so wanted to take Hussain back to Dr Blyden’s compound. Hussain proceeded to leave Dr Blyden’s food with the female police officers and walked back down to meet the police driver to take him back to Dr Blyden’s house.
To the shock of Hussain, as he went down to enter the police car, he was arrested, handcuffed and accused of having a video recorded on his phone of the day the police had gone to Dr Blyden’s house (1 May 2020). Hussain was then handcuffed and asked to make a statement as to why the police found such a recording on his phone. It then emerged from a statement by the Police themselves that when Hussain gave them his phone to deliver Dr Blyden’s food, they had opened Hussain’s phone without his permission and examined the contents of his phone without him being present. They found the footage which had been shared on WhatsApp and used that as an excuse to intimidate Hussain. As can be seen from all the above, the Police clearly set up Hussain Muckson Sesay as a further means of intimidating Dr Sylvia Blyden. The Police went to pick up Muckson directly during the Lockdown, they picked up the young man and the food and then created arbitrary circumstances to detain Hussain Muckson Sesay. There are serious concerns as a result of this charade and the most serious is whether there was any legal basis to search Muckson’s phone after sending him to take the food to Dr Blyden. The Police have now criminalized a young and fine gentleman who was clearly set up as a pawn in a bigger game that the Government is playing.