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The Expo Times treason saga 18 years ago

By  | 15 October 2015 at 08:10 | 1778 views

Editor’s Note:This article was first published in 2007. It’s being re-published with minor editing. The events narrated here actually happened 18 years ago in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

It is exactly ten years ago today that three editors of EXPO TIMES Newspaper were arrested in Freetown. Ibrahim Seaga Shaw, publisher and Editor-in-chief; Abayomi Charles Roberts, Deputy Editor; and Gibril Gbanabome Koroma, General Editor, were detained for several days and then charged with treason.

Now living in Canada, Roberts highlights their ordeal:

"Don’t you know who you’re dealing with? He is a Donalist. Give him back his money!" barked the gatekeeper in accented Krio. I never got his real name but everybody who passed through the main gate of Pademba Road prison knew him as Kian Kate. His name translates as "open the gate” or, literally, “Give him/her the gate."

Kian Kate had just searched us after we returned from court but he missed – or pretended to miss – the money in my hand. Another guard who was obviously behind in the issues of the day seized the bank notes.

By that time we were the talk of the notorious prison and every guard who had his wits about him treaded carefully when it came to the trio from Expo Times. Kian Kate was one of them and he did not want trouble at his station. Such were the few amusing occurrences during our tortuous ordeal at Pademba Road in 1997.

Police Raid

March 19, was a Wednesday and our midweek edition had just hit the streets. I walked into the fourth floor offices of EXPO Times at the Komeh building on No. 1 Short Street, There I was greeted by a swarm of plain clothes detectives, some of whom were busy ransacking my office. One came out, looked up and gestured towards me, “That’s Charles Roberts,” he said with a hint of mischief.

I was more curious than surprised because we the editors were no strangers to police intimidation. I just wondered what it was all about this time. The front page stories seemed harmless from what I recalled on the spur of the moment. “You are invited to CID headquarters,” the most senior of the cops told me with a bland smile. That was when I noticed that the offices of Seaga Shaw and Gibril had been given the same cop treatment. The two were already waiting to make the trip to Slater Terrace.

A Routine Press Run

To put the paper to bed, the editorial team typically worked late into the evening, mainly to catch breaking news or the latest developments on issues of the day. After making finishing touches we hand the ‘dummy’ over to the production team, then headed by our Circulation Manager and occasional sports writer and political firebrand, Abu B. Shaw. That would also be the time that the girls in the typing pool and graphics department, Adama Sesay, Tina Refell and Musu Kamara, get a ride home to ensure their safety in the routine blackout in Freetown.

For that edition I visited the press where the paper was being printed, staying till the small hours to browse the first few impressions. Save for the satirical gossip column, Expo Tech,’ nothing in the paper seemed controversial enough to warrant our arrest but I was wrong. What was clearly a commentary by Gibril Koroma turned out be a stinker to the government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.

In his incisive style, Gbanabome had penned in his Page Two column, ‘Platform’, a critical analysis of the role of the then Nigerian Head of State, General Sanni Abacha, in the Sierra Leone rebel crisis. Titled ‘Abacha’s Wild West Gangsterism,’ the article punched gaping holes in the Big Brother role of the Nigerian leader in Sierra Leone. State House obviously did not like Gibril’s critique and our arrest was just the beginning.

Obviously, it was really about Abacha and Sierra Leone/Nigeria ties but the government calculated that basing our incarceration on that issue would not sell well at home or abroad. We stated clearly that the article on Abacha was purely a commentary by one editor and not necessarily the editorial stance of Expo Times. The Justice department sensed it could not get very far in its bid to muzzle Expo Times, based on the article alone. That was when it came up with the spying charges, claiming that the police had found implicating documents in our offices. The government must have figured that only treason charges would allow them to silence our newspaper for all time without appearing undemocratic. Well, they did not bargain for what ensued.

The political implications of our case quickly hit all sectors and corners of the country, with international human rights/media organizations like Reporters Sans Frontiers (Journalists without Borders) and Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) piling pressure for our release – both by public statements and by inspiring popular petitions to State House and Guma Building. Added to that, there were frequent reports and updates by international media like the BBC, VOA and Radio France; each making our case one that would simply not go away. The government apparently began to rethink its strategy, shifting from the Abacha article to the treasonable allegations of spying.

After Hours Justice

We were held behind bars for a couple of days, until late on Friday afternoon when we were taken to the Guma Building office of the then Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Lawyer Solomon Berewa, for what turned out to be a tongue lashing session. Now vice president and presidential aspirant in the coming elections in July 2007, Berewa chastised us, threatening us with jail time as he toyed with some law books for effect. It was a mistake and we knew we had just been handed our next front page lead story.

Though none of us said anything, we kept exchanging glances. The presumption of innocence principle had just been flouted by the state’s top lawyer and we knew we had one trump card in our hands. After the dressing down (Berewa was smoking furiously while he was at it), we were taken back to CID where we secretly siphoned details of the Berewa meeting to Short Street. Later that day we were each finger-printed, a ritual which precedes the formal laying of charges. It shocked us to learn soon after that we were accused of “spying for the enemy.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise was when, well after 4pm that Friday, March 21, we were escorted out of CID and taken to the Law Courts Building for our first appearance in court. We knew then that the ultimate goal was to send us to Pademba Road prisons where we would spend the weekend.

It was so quick and unusual that our lawyers came to court late, well after the preliminary hearing had begun before Magistrate Naomi Tunis at the Freetown Magistrate’s Court No. 1. Yet, there was a senior state counsel to represent the government. The courtroom battle got underway and history witnessed one of the most dramatic legal hits in the entire case. It came by professional courtesy of Mr. Roland Wright who, though without much notice, rose to the occasion and with one stroke pulled the carpet from under the prosecution.

Lawyer Wright, senior partner in the law firm, Wright and Co., took one look at the charge sheet and asked one question: “The enemy? Which enemy?” It then dawned on the lead prosecutor, Lawyer Gerard Soyie that the prosecution had blundered by overlooking the fact that there cannot be an enemy when Sierra Leone was technically not at war anymore. The point is the case came after the signing of a peace agreement on November 30 of the previous year. The government thought they had us cornered by accusing us of spying for the rebel movement, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), hoping to stir public sentiments against our paper and ourselves as editors. The gambit backfired. There cannot be an enemy when there was an armistice which took effect several months earlier. The agreement, for good measure, had been brokered by the West African regional organization, ECOWAS. So, for the prosecutors, it was back to the drawing board to conjure new charges that would hold in court and still fan public anger and angst against us.

As the saying goes in Sierra Leone, “If you milleh me you go tote…. bokit.” This translates: ‘If you are too vindictive you are more likely to miss your perceived adversary and end up being embarrassed.’ Yet the courtroom coup by Lawyer Wright did not deter the prosecution; nor did it stop the magistrate from denying us bail. This meant a sure trip to the Central Prisons at Pademba Road for the weekend. That was just for starters; the court denied us bail in subsequent appearances for well over four weeks. During this time, the government quietly deleted the phrase relating to the enemy, formally discharged us, but stopped short of acquitting us. Instead, the case went to the high court of Judge Cowan.

Interestingly the court locked us up in the cells of the building as we waited for our first appearance before Judge Cowan. While we were there, some detectives came in and read out fresh charges of spying but without the ‘enemy’ phrase.

Hunger Strike

When we arrived at the prison, Reception checked us in. Obviously, the officers on duty did not know much about us or the gravity of our case so they led us into the main yard, heading for one of the blocks for the main population. Suddenly, there was a shout from the window of the main office and it was one of the senior jailers yelling for our return to Reception.

Here’s why: Journalist Sheka Tarawallie (now Deputy Minister of Interior in the current government) had been incarcerated in one of the main blocks (Blyden, Clarkson, Howard or Wilberforce), as editor of The Torch/Torchlight newspaper after a fracas with members of Parliament. When he came out, he had a field day exposing the corruption and human rights abuses at Pademba Road prison. This not only incensed the government, it embarrassed the prison brass and threatened their jobs. So there was no way they were going to let not just one but three journalists into the general prison population again. The head of the jail yard opted to send us to the isolated Old Female wing.

Scores of journalists have boarded at Pademba but to have a trio of editors from the same newspaper was unusual. The jailers found themselves with three inmates who proved too hot to handle.The hawk-eyed Expo trio capitalized on each blunder the prison system made and passed it on to the outside world through their newspaper. First was their decision to isolate us in every possible way. We were barred from mingling with other inmates, not even those who had been remanded and were still attending court. In addition, we could not join the general population for recreation on the field within the main yard. The worst was their oversight in arranging our shower times. The next edition of Expo Times, ably handled by Abdulai Bayraytay (now in the Ministry of Information as Public Outreach Coordinator) as editor, came out with that story. We soon had a special arrangement to shower daily during which times the general population was locked away!

The only tool we had was our paper and we made the most of it. We did our best to fend off the psychological suffocation by using the ample time afforded us to brainstorm stories and editorials. We also took some outdated, archaic and badly treated books from the prison library to kill the boring hours. We spoke in code so the guard posted at our doors, round the clock, would not understand and give us away. One of our decisions was to go on hunger strike, citing fears for our lives in the light of the overbearing influence of Sanni Abacha in Sierra Leone. That really shook the establishment at the jail, with ripples all the way to Guma Building and State House.

We ended our strike after a couple of days, but only after the Prison boss himself agreed to taste our food in front of us at every meal. This stunned the guards and one even confided that we were the first inmates to get the top brass to come to our cells on our terms. The rank and file started treating us with much more respect. In fact, some would openly express their disappointment every time we returned to the jailhouse, after we had failed to make bail. Our presence must have been bad for business. If anything the Expo trio attracted an uncomfortable spotlight on the guards, making shady deals dangerous.

Suddenly we were being offered new towels, slippers, toiletries and the like, all of which we refused. It was clear that these supplies, mostly donated by religious bodies, never reached the intended beneficiaries and were probably diverted by corrupt jailers.

One-man choir, congregation

Easter came and our jailers would not let me join other inmates for the Sunday worship. Instead, the prison pastor came to our cells to hold a special service for me alone, the only Christian of the trio. On tow was a robust inmate in well-starched jumpers. He came in as altar boy and singer of the choruses. If that was frustrating it was nothing compared to my encounter with the prison medical system. I suffered from hemorrhoids and the doctor actually had to examine me inside my cell, with the guard and my two colleagues overhearing our every word. If these instances are not psychological torture, I do not know what is.

We were kept at Old Female throughout our incarceration, with little or no contact with anybody not directly assigned to our cells or us; not even other prison guards were allowed to talk to us. These are just highlights and based on what I can now recall a decade later. I hope that, someday, the whole story would be told in detail. After weeks and weeks of return trips to court, Judge Cowan finally granted bail.

I bear no hard feelings against our prosecutors and jailers, most of whom were simply doing their jobs in a highly politicized environment. This revisit is only for the record; for posterity and to give readers a sense of the extent to which people in power can go. We were just doing our jobs as journalists.

I dedicate this piece to: all prisoners of conscience, past and present; our respective families for staying by us during those trying times; and to all campaigners for media freedom, especially organizations like RSF.