Sierra Leone Telegraph: 30 April 2020:
There is heightened tension and heavy presence of armed military security in Freetown today, as the aftermath of yesterday’s rioting by prisoners at the country’s main prison located in the west of the capital unfolds.
Dozens of prisoners were gunned down by heavily armed soldiers and police, as rioting prisoners set buildings on fire, in protest at what many believe to be the government’s failure to protect the prison population at Pademba Road from the coronavirus.
Although the government put the number of prisoners killed at 5, there are reports that up to 9 or more prisoners had died in the shooting by armed security forces.
According to sources, the atmosphere in the prison became very tense a few days ago after the government announced that an inmate brought into the prison had contracted the deadly COVID-19 virus.
But the government says that yesterday’s rioting was an “attempted prison break”, causing destruction of prison property -including the reception area, rice store containing over 3,500 bags of rice, a health centre, and a training workshop.
Police spokesman Supt. Abu B. Kallon – the Local Unit Commander of Freetown’s Central Division, issued this statement yesterday: “On today’s date Wednesday 29/04/2020, inmates at Pademba Road Correctional Center attempted to break the prison to escape.
“Some buildings within the Prison Yard such as the Reception, Stores, Hospital, the Vocational workshop were all burnt down. Several other infrastructure such as the Church and the Mosque were partially damaged.
“Whilst the Prison Yard was on fire, a combined team of SLP& RSLAF stormed the Yard and there was some exchange of gun fire. The combined team nevertheless contained the inmates and subdued them under control.
“Fire Force however succeeded in outing off the fire but buildings set ablaze had already burnt before the arrival of Fire fighters.
“During mopping up operation, it was observed that two prison officers were killed. Several others sustained various degrees of injuries as a result of the incident. Up to 5 inmates were counted dead and several also sustained various degrees of injuries most of which were catastrophic.
“Senior Officers of the SLP and RSLAF including CDS, IGP and AIG Operations visited the scene. CID personnel also visited the scene and have commenced investigations into the cause of the insurgence in the Prison Yard. The undersigned have been taking down relevant information regarding the cause of the riot, now identified names to the investigators of certain inmates who could be of assistance to the police in determining the cause of the riot and the operatives amongst the inmates and Prison Officers involved. Supt. MK Alieu Operations Officer from CID HQ have been provided with those names. The situation at the Prison Yard is now under perfect control. The entire area is quiet and calm.”
But today, questions are being asked by human rights activists and international agencies about the government’s use of heavy military grade weapons to quell the riot, and safeguard the property and lives of prisoners in its custody and care.
Several prisoners who were rounded up were badly beaten and subjected to inhumane treatment in an attempt to publicly root out confessions from them.
Chaotic and violent scenes of police brutality were captured on video which went viral on social media, showing wounded prisoners handcuffed on to lamp posts, whilst they were being subjected to public summary justice.
As fears grew over the condition and welfare of a group of opposition political prisoners held at the prison, including former defence minister Palo Conteh and former mayor of Freetown Herbert George Williams, there were reports late last night that Palo and other “high stake prisoners” (as the minister of information refers to them yesterday), have been moved to the Special Court detention centre.
But lawyers representing Palo Conteh, last night expressed serious concern that the wife has been arrested. There are reports that she is being held in custody for alleged involvement in plotting the rioting, a claim denied by her family.
Mrs Conteh was taken away by police, leaving behind their 7 year old son, after Conteh’s residence at Wilberforce was searched by armed police officers.
“Were the prisoners armed, to have exchanged fire with the security forces as alleged? Something is definitely not right in this report.” This and many more questions are being asked today by many in Sierra Leone about the government’s handling of the rioting, which the ministry of information yesterday aptly described as an “insurgency”.
The government in its defence of the action it took in bringing the rioting to an end, went further in saying that, it “strongly condemns this attempt to destabilise the security of the state”.
Speaking on Radio 98.1 this morning, Lahai Lawrence Leema who is the country’s deputy internal affairs minister, was bullish about the government’s handling of yesterday’s rioting, and warns of tougher response should anyone attempt to destabilise the country.
This is what he said:
As international condemnation of the government’s handling of the rioting grows, the UNHCR has issued this statement:
In another development yesterday, there was panic in Freetown after reports of a fire at the USA embassy bulding in Freetown. Today, ambassador Maria Brewer spoke about the cause of the fire and the extent of the damage: