By Chief Officer Leslie F. Cole- Showers— National PRO, SLCS (B.A Hons. in Mass Communication, FBC)
For years, so many people have struggled to understand why some people who have been convicted of various crimes in society get pardoned at arranged dates every year. In Sierra Leone, it usually happens on New Year’s Day (1st January) and on Independence Day (27th April).
For those who are Christians, one limb of the Lord’s Prayer encapsulated in Matthew 6:12 reads: Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who trespass against us. If those who mutter these words actually mean it from the depth of their hearts, then the pardoning practice should not surprise or annoy them, because verses 14 & 15 state that forgiving our offenders of their wrongs against us is the only precondition for God’s forgiveness of our sins. If religion is strong enough to make worshippers of a sect honour every single word of their Pastors, be it Biblical or not, then I think words carved out of the Bible itself, should be followed without recourse to questioning its practicability. Speaking of practicability, is it not true that we can actually forgive people who have offended us? Think about it for a second. Have you never in your life forgiven someone who had wronged you? It is anyone’s guess that the answer is an emphatic no!
A cliché reads: to err is human; to forgive is divine. Heads of States or Presidents are simply making real heavenly principles, by pardoning those who have hurt the state through their conducts. It is so, because in Law, crimes are committed against the state and civil wrongs are committed among individuals. For example, if someone is held as a suspect for the crime of robbery with aggravation, in the eyes of the Law, the suspect didn’t commit the crime against any individual but against the state. Therefore, the suspect is charged and tried by the state with state resources until the individual is found guilty as charged or acquitted of the charges. If s/he is found guilty, s/he will be sentenced to a specified period of imprisonment. On the contrary, if someone owes a debt to another person, it is considered a civil wrong and not a criminal offence. In a situation like this, the person who has been wronged can bring a legal action against the debtor, incurring all the expenses. The debtor can either be found liable of the wrong or not liable. Now, let me reconnect you to the main issue.
In fact, punishment and pardon are two sides of a coin, as much as hate and love, day and night, strength and weakness, illness and cure, etc. Our existence as humans will be absolutely meaningless if all we do is punish those who have committed crimes in society, as much as it will be if all we do is hate and not love. Life can only be balanced when we learn to live with the opposite principles of what we hold dear.
Interestingly, all countries in the world, except China, implement the Presidential Pardon. It is enmeshed in their national laws, as much as it is codified in the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone Act No 6. Chapter V Part I, section 40 (4) (e) states: Notwithstanding any provisions of this Constitution or any other law to the contrary, the President shall, without prejudice to any such law as may for the time being be adopted by Parliament, be responsible, in addition to the functions conferred upon him in the Constitution, for—the exercise of the prerogative of mercy. Also, section 63 (1) (a – d): The President may, acting in accordance with the advice of a Committee appointed by the Cabinet over which the Vice-President shall preside— a. grant any person convicted of any offence against the laws of Sierra Leone a pardon, either free or subject to lawful conditions; b. grant to any person a respite, either indefinite or for a specified period, of the execution of any punishment imposed on that person for such an offence; c. substitute a less severe form of punishment for any punishment imposed on any person for such an offence; d. remit the whole or any part of any punishment imposed upon any person for such an offence or any penalty or forfeiture otherwise due to the Government on account of such an offence.
Forgive me for boring you with laws, but I feel obliged to do it, for effect. I presume it is now clear that the Sierra Leone Correctional Service (SLCS) does not have any power whatsoever to release inmates at will if their slated time with us has not ended. The only Person endowed with that kind of power is the President. Even with that, he has to more often than not, rely on the recommendations forwarded to him by the Prerogative of Mercy Committee. This Committee, which is chaired by the Vice President of the country, comprises the Director General of the SLCS, the Inspector General of Police, and the Attorney General, Minister of internal Affairs, Central Intelligence Unit, and the Office of National Security. This Committee meets at least three times to peruse the list of recommended inmates generated by the SLCS, before forwarding it to the President’s office for his assent.
What the SLCS does is to come up with as much names as possible, of inmates who were convicted of less serious crimes such as larceny, obtaining goods, fraudulent conversion, conspiracy to defraud, unlawful possession, frequenting, traffic violations, etc. Also, the SLCS targets inmates in the said category who have served two- thirds of their term. Another important thing is the SLCS also sometimes makes special recommendations for sickly (HIV/ AIDS, TB, anemia, etc) inmates and some inmates who were convicted of serious crimes such as wounding with intent, robbery with aggravation, manslaughter, etc. It must however, be noted that if an inmate meets the stated criteria but does not pass the comportment test, s/he will not be recommended for pardon. Society should know that those who come out on Presidential Pardon are well- behaved, in our estimation, are remorseful of the crime they committed, and have benefitted from our rehabilitation programmes (tailoring, adult education, computer literacy, university education, etc.) during the course of their stay with us.
Contrary to popular belief, the list we tender to the Prerogative of Mercy Committee is not fait accompli; major or minor changes can be injected into it without recourse to us. For example, we can recommend three hundred (300) inmates for release, but the Committee can scissor that number to one hundred and fifty (150) or even ask us to add, if they see it fit.
The Presidential Pardon is not just limited to opening Prison gates for inmates to walk out; it can also be about reducing sentences, and commuting death penalty to life imprisonment. This year, five (5) inmates who were given the death penalty punishment were pardoned with the life imprisonment punishment.
As for those who are coming out, society is assured of the fact that they are remorseful for whatever they may have done to hurt the stability of society and are willing to embrace genuine labour as a means of income earning. It is a question of society’s will to forgive them and help them become law- abiding citizens for the progress of the country.