President Julius Maada Bio last Friday ordered the release of hundreds of prisoners across the country who are serving sentence for various crimes, including the country’s former minister of defence – retired Major Palo Conteh.
Palo Conteh was serving a two-year jail-term, after he was arrested for entering State House with a firearm, and accused by state prosecutors of ‘intending to kill the president and overthrow the Bio-led government’, an act described by prosecutors as a treasonable offence.
Conteh was then charged and found guilty of only two out of fifteen counts offence, ranging from treason to ownership of firearms without valid licence.
After a marathon High Court trial, Conteh was acquitted of treason but sentenced to two years imprisonment for possession of firearms.
Two days ago, Palo Conteh received presidential pardon from President Bio after spending seven months at the Pademba Road prisons in Freetown.
But since his release which was celebrated by Palo himself along with his family, friends, and scores of opposition APC party supporters at his home in Wilberforce, a hot debate has emerged about the constitutionality, legality and morality of president Bio’s decision to pardon Palo Conteh, whose appeal hearing is still at the Courts.
What is not in doubt however, is president Bio’s authority to grant pardon to a convict. According to Section 63.1 of the country’s 1991 Constitution: “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.”
But what is in contention across the political divide and on social media, is the timing of the president’s decision to free Palo as well as the president’s failure to make public the terms of his pardon. This is now seriously fuelling what could become a constitutional and legal crisis in the country.
According to one commentator: “The Judiciary was bound to give its verdict on January 19 , 2021 as it was the scheduled date for the judgement. What the President has done was a deliberate effort to undermine the already poorly managed judiciary. Pardon is not given to a case on trial of this nature. If Bio had wanted to make a good name for himself this was not how to go about it. He is only trying to screw up Palo’s political career for it’ll go down that he’s a convict and was only pardoned.
“As a convict, Palo cannot hold public office, he cannot even contest elections! This is how bad the Presidential pardon is to Palo. They’ve (government and the judiciary) have been delaying this verdict because they knew that Palo had big chances to win his appeal. We should insist that even with this Presidential Pardon, Palo’s judgement should be made because we want him free of the said conviction that hangs over his head.
“Bio should stop thinking that people are not smart. Sierra Leoneans are seeing through you, Bio! We want justice for Palo, we want Palo’s freedom without conviction. Let this freedom be considered just for his health purposes but we want Palo clear of any conviction.”
So, the constitutional question now is whether Palo Conteh is still a Convicted Criminal who cannot hold public office.
Some commentators believe that: “A pardon means the conviction no longer exists in Law and the pardoned person has the full capacity to automatically go back to the status quo of enjoying all his rights, including the right to even contest as Head of State. Furthermore, a pardon can be given at any step of a judicial appeal process. Having a pending Appeal is NOT a bar to being pardoned. It is usually legally tidier if the convicted person first withdraws his/her Appeal before the pardon, but it is not an absolute requirement.”
But cynics and critics of the government say that the president’s decision to pardon Conteh is a political ploy meant to scupper the opposition APC’s chances of winning the 2023 elections.
“Someone had hinted Bio that on the 19th of January, Palo may have walked free when the Court decides on his appeal. It would have been another big blow for Bio if Polo’s bogus conviction is overturned just as the treason trial case. So, to save himself and his failing government further embarrassment, he pardoned Palo Conteh less than three weeks to the final verdict.”
So, the question is whether Palo Conteh himself will quash his own appeal – now that he has been pardoned by the president. But any such decision by Palo Conteh may be described as a minefield fraught with potential explosives to his detriment.
What if he continues with his appeal and loses? What if he decides to end his appeal now and then later found out that the president has only granted him a qualified pardon, which meant he cannot hold public office or contest public elections?
Many supporters of Palo Conteh are angry at what they described as the “shabby” manner with which president Bio made his decision to pardon Conteh.
“We are grateful for ending the torture of Palo Conteh but even the shabby way the Pardon was executed, speaks volumes of the hapless way the Bio government operates. I cannot believe Bio has completely manhandled what would have been an otherwise laudable gesture. Could you believe neither Palo nor his lawyers have seen the Warrant of the Pardon; and nobody was even formally informed prior to the release. They just opened his cell and told him, “Call your wife, you are going home today. Bye Bye!” Then opened the prison and let him out,” one supporter said.
This is what another opposition commentator said: “Rtd. Major Alfred Paolo Conteh returned from hell as he finally got released from incarceration with a pardon from the government. Are we supposed to be honestly dancing? Is it because of the universal cry for his release? Or was he released because of trying to satisfy the selfish ends of the Bio-led government?
“How could one under detention and with an outstanding appeal court case, without a conclusion be pardoned? Paolo – with a bailable offense was vehemently denied bail on several attempts. The opposition party nearly gave up on fighting for his release. We simply left everything to the Almighty God to guide, save and comfort him till next March when he will be released. In two months’ time.
“Why was he not included in the long list of pardoned inmates in the past months after the prison massacre? If the judiciary was rational enough, they should have asked him to pay the fine of five million Leones to end the case.”
Today, Palo Conteh attended church service in Freetown, and no one yet knows where this saga is going to end. While he is physically free, many are questioning whether he is mentally free or held captive mentally by president Bio.
Will Conteh reject his presidential pardon and go back to prison while his appeal hearing is ongoing?
Will he simply accept the president’s pardon for what its worth and move on with his life?
Will the government publish the terms of Palo Conteh’s pardon, so as to end public speculation and uncertainty, that are now engulfing his decision to grant pardon to a former government defence minister who many in the opposition APC party describe as a political prisoner?