Sierra Leone Telegraph: 24 March 2020:
There was high drama and heightened security alarm at State House in Freetown last week, when the former head of the country’s security and safety in the APC government – Retired Major Palo Conteh, arrived for a meeting at State House with the president, carrying a loaded pistol in his shoulder bag.
Conteh was then arrested by CID and is still being questioned by police, as many in the ruling SLPP party call for treason charges to be filed against him.
Details of what actually took place last week at State House are mixed, and opinions about where the truth lies have become polarised by party political politics.
Conteh has not denied carrying his gun into State House. Speaking to a source immediately after his arrest, he said that he always carry his licenced pistol whenever he leaves his house. And that he forgot to leave the gun at home when going for his meeting with the president.
He also said that upon his arrival at State House, he declared to the security personnel that he was carrying a gun in his bag which he wanted to hand over to the security. He said however, that the security advised him to go upstairs to his meeting with the president with his bag containing the gun.
And, upon arrival upstairs for his meeting, he was questioned by the head of State House security, who then alerted the police for his arrest for carrying a weapon into State House.
But this account has been denied by a government spokesman – Alpha Saidu, who works in the government’s information and communications ministry.
According to Saidu, speaking in a recorded audio, the Retired Major and former minister of internal affairs and minister of defence, refused to go through security checks as he made his way to see the president with his loaded pistol.
This is what Saidu said in Krio:
As police investigations continue into this saga which many say could have threatened the peace and stability of the country had State House security opened fire at Conteh – believing that he was about to assassinate the president, there are reports that the commissioner responsible for issuing licence for small arms – Retired Colonel Sinnah, is also at CID helping the police on their investigations.
Sinnah is reported to have issued Conteh with a licence to own a gun without following due process, such as ensuring that Conteh had a clean medical certificate, police verification certificate and also clearance from the office of national security.
Three days ago, a statement was published purported to be by the family of Paolo Conteh. This is what it says:
“We are alarmed by the Press Release dated the 20th day of March 2020 issued by the Criminal Investigation Unit relating to a Criminal Investigation against Major (Rtd) Alfred Palo Conteh, Former Minister of Defense, Former Minister of Internal Affairs, a qualified lawyer and a military man for over 40 years.
Major (Rtd) Alfred Palo Conteh was called back to national service by no less a person than His Excellency (Retired Brigadier) Dr. Julius Maada Bio. On Monday 16th March 2020 he was invited to State House to share his knowledge and experience from the Ebola response with a view to helping the Government plan for and respond to the Covid-19 pandemic in the unfortunate event it is detected in Sierra Leone.
He did not invite himself to State House, he was called by his President to serve and he did not ignore his call as COVID-19 is a national emergency, it is not a political issue. Major Rtd Alfred Palo Conteh agreed to attend that meeting and at the meeting, he gave his commitment to assist the Government, seeing this situation as his patriotic duty to help his country and to be of service in these difficult times.
Given his past experience, his lack of personal security and his very public face, Major (Rtd) Alfred Palo Conteh is known to always carry a gun with him. He has the necessary permits under the Arms and Ammunition Act of 2012 and is licensed to carry a concealed weapon for his own protection. In the face of the government failing to provide security for the Former Defense and Internal Affairs Minister as protocol demands, he secured a legal hand gun to protect himself and his family.
He was invited to a subsequent meeting at State House on Thursday 19th March and he had in his car, his bag which contained his gun and license. When he got to State House, he did not think it prudent to leave the bag with his gun in the car given the level of pedestrian traffic at State House around parked vehicles.
He decided to take his bag in with him and upon entry to State House, he walked directly to security and handed over his bag and informed them that he needed to leave his bag with them since the bag contained his personal gun and license. State House security in fact had waived him on to go on upstairs. But being diligent, he refused to take his bag upstairs and checked it in with security. He was then allowed to proceed upstairs to the meeting location.
Major Rtd Alfred Palo was in the office of the State Chief of Protocol (SCOP) with a number of other people who were also waiting for the meeting to start, approximately 45 minutes after he entered statehouse, when State House security personnel came in and asked him if he owned the bag. He indicated, in the presence of everyone present, that yes it was his bag and he had checked it in and informed security that his personal gun was in it.
He was then told that he could not proceed to the meeting since he had to make a statement to CID personnel about the gun. The other attendants proceeded to the meeting without him. State House security then asked everyone present in the room to not speak about this incident outside of State House.
Major Rtd Alfred Palo Conteh gave a statement and he was allowed to leave State House but his gun and license were confiscated. Major Rtd Alfred Palo Conteh did make it clear in his statement given at Statehouse, and as was witnessed by those at the security desk when he arrived, that he voluntarily handed in his bag and clearly disclosed that there was a gun inside.
He had made no attempt to take the bag to the meeting and had proceeded upstairs to attend the meeting, without the bag. Any attempt to say otherwise and to imply that he went to State House with any mal intent is an attempt to frame Major Rtd Alfred Palo Conteh for a crime he did not commit.
The only crime that Major Rtd Alfred Palo Conteh committed is refusing to heed the warning of his friends and family who told him to stay away and not offer his assistance in this time of need, out of mistrust for this government. His only crime is daring to answer the call of his President. His desire to serve humanity and his people is why he is currently facing this crisis. Major Rtd Alfred Palo Conteh could have left his bag in the car and avoided this incident but he was concerned that it may fall into the wrong hands and felt that State House security was the best place for it.
Major Rtd Alfred Palo Conteh is not a criminal and he has not committed a crime. Any attempt to insinuate otherwise is an attempt to frame and imprison him unjustly.
Dated the 21st Day in March 2020 – From the Paolo Conteh Family.” (END).
Did Palo Conteh commit an offence by taking a weapon into State House? What does the law say about taking weapons into State House? Can lapse of judgement or mistaken and wrongful adherence to the law be used as a defence in a court of law?
To claim to forget or mistakenly do what is wrong is not a defence in law. While sometimes there may be mitigating factors that made it impossible for one to obey the law at any given moment, it is for the court to weigh up the circumstances and possible motive in order to determine whether wrongdoing was intended.
Also, the question must be asked about how probable it is for an experienced and qualified soldier of sound mind and judgement to make such a mistake, taking a weapon into State House. Did his declaration of carrying a gun to State House security absolve him of wrongdoing? Is Palo Conteh guilty of committing an offence – such as treason? Only a court of law can decide. Investigations continue.
Lawyers of Conteh have today written to the country’s Head of CID, calling for their client to be treated humanly whilst in custody. This is their letter: