Since the former Defence, and Interior Minister was arrested and charged, among others with treason, the trial-by-social-media and in the court of public opinion has been in overdrive. The court of public opinion had tried him and given its own verdict long ago. It is needless to say that the views, opinions and protestations proffered by these legal and political purveyors are largely laced with political persuasions. It is also obvious that such views could be polarised along the usual denominators of tribal, regional and political considerations. So, when Paolo Conteh was found “not guilty” of treason by the jury, despite being guilty on two counts of unlawful gun possession, the reactions coming from all our legal, political and social commentators were predictably spilt.
So, what has this verdict taught us about our judicial system today? The government/state, through the Office of the Attorney General alleged and prosecuted Paolo for treason, among others. He was found guilty on two counts of unlawful gun possession. I am not going to pretend that I have any idea about the legal gymnastics of our country. However, my layman’s understanding of the verdict is that, the jury accepted that it was unlawful for Paolo to carry a weapon into the premises of State House. But the “not guilty” verdict meant that the prosecution for the state failed to prove beyond all reasonable doubt, that such a breach amounted to treason. Others will say that the jury was not convinced that his behaviour amounted to a treasonable offence. As they say, a jury consists of twelve persons chosen to decide who has the better lawyer. You win some, you lose some.
In the meantime, Cornelius Oguntola Melvin Deveaux, the National Publicity Secretary and former Deputy Minister of Information and Communications in the previous APC government, has been quick to lecture us on the merits and demerits of how the SLPP government has handled the case. In his sermon, he sees the vindication of Paolo Conteh as “a failed and cynical attempt by the ruling SLPP to lure a jury to allow themselves to be used in the same way as the government continues to use the judiciary to intimidate and victimize opposition members and, on the other hand, it exposes a desperation for revenge by the ruling SLPP and also pinpoints the government’s ultimate aim to incarcerate opposition members on trumped-up political charges so as to slam a prohibition on their active participation in politics ahead of the 2022 and 2023 elections”.
Our country never fails to amuse us with ironies, and our penchant to attract such is never lost on some of us. Under such circumstances, you would expect Deveaux, whose APC government tried to do away with jury trials in 2017, to be grateful to the opposition and other legal minds at the time, to oppose the proposal. Instead, he launches a tirade about the SLPP’s attempt to circumvent the legal system. No one is saying whether the SLPP tried to do so or not. As we know, such behaviours are part of the DNA of our political parties. No surprises there and he seems to know or have inside information; thanks, by virtue of association.
In 2017, the APC government proposed that trials such as treason trials to be presided over by a judge and a judge alone; citing delays to trials as one of the only sane reasons behind such a thinking. You and I know the thinking behind such an argument. Imagine if the jury service had been dismissed in 2017, and Paolo was to face the mercy of a Bio appointed judge today, you do the logic; if any. Even Paolo would be thanking his stars that it didn’t succeed; for it may have been a case of “whosoever diggeth a pit, shall fall in”. Sometimes, we have to be careful, what we wish for.
This case stands out understandably to all, and especially those that are familiar with the history of treason trials in the country. As a country, we don’t have an enviable record on the outcomes of them. It is no wonder that this verdict has re-echoed memories of people like the late Francis Minah, Mohamed Sorie Fornah and the fourteen others. When the dead cannot cry out for justice, it usually becomes the duty of the living to do so for them. With Paolo Conteh being on the other side of the Rubicon, there are some people who would have expected him to endure a similar fate to those that have gone before him. Thank God it did not happen, and that should be a comparatively rare feather to the cap of our justice system. It becomes telling so, when you live in a society where a system catches flies and lets hornets fly free. Where a charge of treason is involved, most political connoisseurs tend to harbour a foregone conclusion of certain death, if my history can serve me well.
Successive governments have used or misused our justice system as the long arm of the law, to muzzle free speech, nullify political opponents, or even take them out of circulation. Our constitution sanctifies the independence of the judiciary. Sadly, the impression is that it has been used as the means by which established injustices have been sanctioned. Many see it Sadly, as an organ to promote the whims and wishes of sitting governments. No wonder, many see the jury as BRAVE; for having the AUDACITY to buck the trend in this case.
Since Bio came to power, his government has been rightly or wrongly accused of many ills in our society. Just like Ernest Koroma, we have seen journalists and other public officials serving as guests of honour at the CID and Pademba Road prisons. People like Sylvia Blyden and most recently the erudite Professor Umarr Kamara were reportedly detained without charge; way beyond the stipulated time frame that individuals can be held in such circumstances. Conspiracy merchants had rumoured that the recent riots and fire at the Pademba Road prisons was a botched attempt to take Paolo out of circulation. So, imagine the thread that may have followed this narrative, when he was charged with treason. Are you beginning to relate to the magnitude of this verdict? Does it sound like an anti climax for the doom merchants? And can you blame them for such a thinking?
This may just be a snippet into our justice system. One swallow does not make a season. We have a long way to go, but like a journey of one million miles, it starts with a step. This is a small step, and may be, just may be, it would restore our collective faith in our justice system. When you consider that this is not the first case the government or state prosecutor has failed to successfully win, it might just leave us feeling that there is hope for justice after all. The case against the mining company is another example. There are those who might rather see such failures by Attorney General’s Office as ineptitude. It is understandable if some people see this verdict as a defeat to the government; for obvious reasons. That does not necessarily mean that it is true or correct. Our justice system is not perfect. But it can be refreshing to see justice done, or at least seen to be done. It’s just a good feeling to have; that we live in a country where justice is sacrosanct.
Others may see it as justice at work. I know which side I will view it from, and I am hopeful. You win some, you lose some. We should take this verdict in good faith, irrespective of our persuasions; for the foundation of justice is good faith. True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice (M L King) When justice is done, it sometimes brings joy to the righteous and terror to evildoers. Justice is conscience, not a personal conscience but the conscience of the whole of humanity.
And as a nation, I would rather see the finer side, the brighter colour and blindness of justice in this case. If this is a reflection that Bio’s government will not or has not interfered with our judicial system, well and good. We need a platform where everyone should feel equal in the eyes of the law. If “Black Lives Matter”, charity should begin at home.
With Manchester United back on form, perhaps our judiciary is an avid Manchester United supporter; back on form, even if for ninety minutes only.
Lest I forget, my heart goes out to our APC comrades who tragically lost their lives in a road traffic accident yesterday; in the line of duty. May Allah forgive their souls and grant them Jannah.
Don’t forget to turn the lights off when you leave the room. And don’t forget your mask either.