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Difference Maker

Sabrina Mahtani provides legal aid to female prisoners in Sierra Leone

Sabrina Mahtani helps women in prison (often innocent) in Sierra Leone's rough, overcrowded prisons

By Paige McClanahan/ Correspondent / May 9, 2011

(L. to r.) Sabrina Mahtani stands with Theresa Kamara, female prison director in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and prison officers Jeriatu Siallah and Kargbo Terray at the gate of the new prison. Ms. Mahtani founded AdvocAid to help women prisoners, many of whom are poor and illiterate. Her father was jailed in Zambia for political reasons when Mahtani was a girl, but was later won his release.

Felicity Thompson


Freetown, Sierra Leone

In 2005, a young woman in Sierra Leone was sentenced to death for a murder she did not commit. Her purported crime was the killing of a 6-month-old baby, the daughter of her husband's second wife.

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The infant died after its father sat on it, but the young woman, whom we know only by her initials M.K., took the blame – and even told police that she had killed it.

"I said that I was guilty because my husband told me to," M.K. says. Her husband told the police that she had poisoned the baby, and they believed him.

M.K. ended up on death row in Sierra Leone's notoriously grim Pademba Road Prison in the capital city of Freetown, far from her home village. Forgotten by her family and unable to read, write, or pay for a decent lawyer, M.K. was confined to a small, dirty cell for nearly six years.

But then she met Sabrina Mahtani, the founder of AdvocAid, a nonprofit group based in Freetown that provides free services for women who find themselves inside Sierra Leone's prisons. Ms. Mahtani got to know M.K. and was moved by her story.

Mahtani offered to help.

M.K.'s story is not unique, Mahtani says. Since she founded AdvocAid in 2006, Mahtani, a lawyer trained in Britain, has met scores of women who have fallen afoul of the law because of poverty, illiteracy, or just misfortune. AdvocAid was set up to help those women by providing them with legal, emotional, and educational support.

Since 2009, the organization has provided legal representation for more than 400 women. Sometimes, even the smallest piece of advice can mean the difference between freedom and jail.

That was the case for M.K.

"When she was convicted, the judge did not tell her that she had 21 days to appeal," says Simitie Lavaly, a legal officer for AdvocAid, citing one of the grounds for having the case reconsidered. The AdvocAid team also found holes in the prosecution's reasoning and discovered that M.K.'s husband, the primary witness, had never been cross-examined. Slowly, the case against her began to unravel.

While legal aid is important, Mahtani knows that alone it is not enough. Conditions inside Sierra Leone's prisons are rough, and AdvocAid works to improve them. "A lot of prisons in Sierra Leone are very old," Mahtani says. "Pademba Road Prison was built in 1914 for 300 people. And now it's got 1,400 prisoners."

Prison reform gets little attention from the government of Sierra Leone, one of the poorest countries in Africa.

So AdvocAid picks up where the government falls short, offering literacy classes inside the prisons, collecting clothing for the women, and building a library for them. It also provides legal education, so they can be more aware of their rights.


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