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

Felicity Thompson
(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.

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.

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.

It's a big job, and it comes with many challenges, but Mahtani says she is not about to back down. She has seen firsthand the importance of this kind of work.

"My interest in prisons really came from my father being in prison when I was much younger," says Mahtani, who grew up in Zambia. "It was a very politically motivated issue – he was charged with treason."

That experience taught her that imprisonment has far-reaching impacts, affecting the families, children, and future livelihoods of those who end up in jail.

Her father was ultimately acquitted and discharged, Mahtani says, "because he had an education and access to lawyers." After her father was released, he set up a group to support Zambian prisoners.

In Sierra Leone, Mahtani has continued that work. "Women in our society are always discriminated against," says Abdul Sidique, a human rights official with the United Nations in Freetown. "We have customary law that ... always takes women as second-class citizens."

AdvocAid "is making a difference – it's making a big difference," Mr. Sidique says. "Women prisoners now feel that they have somebody who is seeking their interests."

Despite its successes, AdvocAid still struggles to find funding for its work.

"[Donors] tend to see people in prison and in conflict with the law as bad, and they don't want to put their money there," Mahtani explains.

Donors also like their grants to have the broadest possible impact, and "AdvocAid is not about numbers," Mahtani says. "We're about impacting individual lives."

M.K. is one of those individuals. With AdvocAid's help, she was released from death row in March, after the six years in prison. The judge who heard her appeal overturned the earlier ruling, and the prosecution dropped its case against her.

Though M.K. is free, a lot has changed. She is afraid to return to her village, where her husband lives with his other wife.

AdvocAid is supporting M.K. at this stage, too. The organization gave her new clothes to wear after she was released, and they're hoping to set her up with vocational training so she can find work in Freetown. It will be a long process, but AdvocAid says it will help her along the way.

"There are so few organizations that will be there from the very beginning right through to the end," Mahtani says.

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