The Sierra Leone Telegraph: 9 January 2014
Many Sierra Leoneans are wondering and concerned about the whereabouts and fate of the crew of the local passenger boat, which was struck by a foreign vessel hired by a mining company on the 28th December 2013.
Dozens of people including children travelling on board the handmade commercial boat were killed in the accident, which took place off the coast of Freetown.
But the whereabouts of the crew of the boat continue to be shrouded in mystery.
They were arrested by the police immediately after the accident and taken to an unconfirmed police station. It is now two weeks since their arrest and they are still locked up without charge.
The condition of their health and the welfare of their families are not known. The government has kept a tight lip.
There is strong suspicion that ministers have been bribed by the owners of the vessel to cover up the accident.
It is not clear whether the crew of the local commercial boat sustained serious injuries, but witnesses at the scene of the accident say that they looked confused and badly shaken.
What is really shocking is that once again the government of Sierra Leone and the police have shown no respect for justice.
The fundamental rights of the crew of the local boat have been traded for the interests of the owners of the mining vessel responsible for the deaths of those passengers.
If police investigations into the causes of the accident are ongoing, why should the crew of the local boat be arrested and continued to be locked up in jail until the conclusion of those investigations?
Have they been presumed guilty until proven innocent? Why should the crew of the local boat be locked up, whilst the owners of the mining vessel be allowed to go free?
Why should ministers all too often sacrifice the rights of the people of Sierra Leone, in order to safeguard and protect the interests of foreign companies in return for cash?
The crew of the local boat must be freed and allowed to be with their families and loved ones, while investigations continue.
It seems the only crime those crew men have committed, is to put theirs’ and the lives of poor people at risk, trying to eke out a decent living in those rickety and dangerous dugouts they call commercial boats.
But what other options do they and many others have? What laws have they broken?
Following the confusion and government cover up that ensued after the accident, the foreign company owning the vessel – Beltship Management (SL) Ltd., made this brief statement:
“At approximately seven pm on the evening of the 28 December, a Beltship Management (SL) Ltd support craft returning to port with three crew members on board reported a collision with a small passenger boat close to Tagrin point.
“The vessel, a 15 passenger slow speed crew boat, was in normal operations returning after deploying local workers. Beltship Management (SL) Ltd immediately mobilised rescue craft to assist and are fully cooperating with the local authorities. Beltship Management will release further updates as and when they become available.”
Since issuing that statement, nothing further has been heard from the company or the government, until yesterday – 8 January 2014, when the transport minister – Balogun Koroma disclosed the whereabouts of the crew, during an interview with the government’s publication – Cocorioko newspaper.
When asked about the latest information on the boat accident, the minister said:
“The latest information is that a total of 23 people lost their lives and the matter is under joint police and administrative investigations, the outcome of which will be made public.
“While the investigations are ongoing, the Beltship (Sanda Island) has been impounded; all three captains of the NASSIT ferry, Sanda Island Boat and SABENTY Pampam have been detained pending the outcome of the Police investigations.”
But why should the crew of both the local boat that was hit by the foreign vessel and the crew of the NASSIT ferry (not involved in the accident) be arrested and detained?
What crimes have they committed that government and police are aware of? Is this not another gross injustice and evidence of government conspiracy?
And here lies the biggest miscarriage of justice and judicial inconsistency. Minister Koroma said:
“A good start is that the Management of Beltship Company, owners of the boat – Sanda Island, which ran into the local Pampam ( SABENTY) have agreed to pay compensation to all categories of victims of the accident.
“Together with the office of the Chief of Staff, we are meeting regularly and working on the modalities.”
What modalities? Is this not CORRUPTION of the highest order?
Why should the foreign company agreed to pay compensation in advance of the conclusion of the police investigations, if their crew are innocent?
Why should the foreign company agreed to pay compensation in advance of criminal charges – murder or manslaughter, being heard by the Courts and justice be seen to have taken its course?
Why are ministers accepting cash from the foreign company in order to subvert the cause of justice?
These are some of the questions that the government must ask itself, whilst spending the cash it has received from the foreign company, in compensation for the dozens of lives lost on the 28 December 2013.
A government that is not desperate for cash, and one that prides itself on the principles of justice, human rights and civil liberty, would not accept corrupt payment, sacrificing the rights and freedoms of its people.
How much money has the company handed over to the government? What are the conditions of the payment? Which minister received the payment? Is the president aware of the payment?
Responsibility for determining damages, financial claims and compensation must remain with the courts – not State House.