Cell B-24: kidnapped by the Dutch State?

20th April 2005, Comments 0 comments

Sierra Leonean journalist Ernest Mason feels he is being left to rot in jail after applying for asylum in the Netherlands. Here's his story.

The first locked gate was a high metal fence at the beginning of a long concrete drive, which lead to the second barrier. That door too was locked and led to the glassed-in waiting room. There were three plastic chairs, several people standing, and a prison officer behind the glass.

Journalist Ernest Mason faces jail if he is sent back to Sierra Leone

She took my residence permit, entered the information into a computer and gave me a key to a locker. Only this key and a handful of change was allowed with me into the prison.

After clearing a metal detector, another locked door opened and the names of the prisoners were read out. We were led into a long, tunnel shaped hallway. At the end of the corridor was an open door into a room that had about ten small tables scattered around. Mason was seated at a table in front of two guards.

He had been advised by his lawyer not to speak to the press because the Minister for Immigration and Integration, Rita Verdonk, has threatened to publish information about deportees who speak to journalists.

The minister has been infuriated by what she sees is biased reporting in the media.

But, Mason is not afraid of what Verdonk may say about him. This is his story as I remember it and as far as we have been able to confirm it.

Mason worked as a journalist/producer for the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Services (SLBS) in the West African state from 1994 to 1998. He produced a 30-minute current affairs programme called "The Latest". In May 1997, according to Mason's story, he was put under pressure to report pro-rebel propaganda around the time of the coup that ousted President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.

Mason says he tried to toe the line, but fled Sierra Leone in September 1998 when he received word that his name was on hit list for untrustworthy journalists.

He went to Ghana, stowed away on a boat, and arrived in the Netherlands on 22 September 1998. He immediately announced himself as an asylum seeker in need of a safe haven.

A ministry spokesperson confirmed the request was handled under the accelerated procedure, which meant he had 48 hours to prove his case. It was denied. Mason had only his ID badge from the station to prove his story. According to him, the IND did not believe he was a journalist and therefore at risk.

The International News Safety Institute (INSI) reports that in 1999, within a few months of Mason fleeing, nine journalists were murdered in Sierra Leone by the RUF rebels.

When asked about Mason, Verdonk's spokesperson refused to discuss individual cases, simply stating that in his opinion "the authorities must have had a good reason to refuse him asylum".

Decisions made by the immigration authority IND are not infallible. There is the case of the Somalia asylum seeker who was murdered after he was deported from the Netherlands. The IND is currently in trouble in Parliament over its decision to deport an Algerian journalist. He was promptly arrested on his arrival in Algeria.

Mason was sent to an asylum seekers centre and appealed the decision not to grant him asylum. At that time, if you had friends or family in the country you were allowed to stay with them while waiting for your appeal, as long as you reported to the police once a week. Mason had a friend from Sierra Leone in Eindhoven.

Sanctuary? One of the cells for asylum detainees opened at PI Tilburg in 1999

He received NLG 86 (EUR 39) per week; NLG 50 went to his rent and NLG 36 for food. He did volunteer work at the evangelical broadcaster EO, helping to make programmes.

However, proving he was a journalist was not the problem with his appeal. The problem, and all others that have followed, was the result of an altercation with a member of the Foreign Police, or Vreemdelingpolitie. 

As required, Mason reported once a week to get his stamp. According to Mason, he once arrived very early at the asylum seekers centre (AZC) in Helmond and was at the front of what would become a very long line. There was pushing and shoving in the line and policewoman told him to go back to the end of the line.

Sierra Leone 1787 – Capital Freetown becomes settlement for freed slaves 1808 – Britain makes Freetown a crown colony 1961 – Country becomes independent 1967 – First of several military coups 1978 – One-party state d
He protested and there was shouting. She told him she would get him into "big trouble".  The end result was that Mason was fined NLG 250 (EUR 113) and a notation that he was a "threat to public order" was attached to his file.

He struck a deal with his landlord to work in lieu of rent and paid the fine. A few days later his appeal for asylum was denied because the notation was still attached to his name.

According to Peter Abspoel of the Refugee Organisations of the Netherlands, any such notation is known as a "counter-indication" and makes it extremely difficult to get asylum. The minister would have to agree to have it removed and this has almost never happened.

Mason got another lawyer and launched another appeal. He studied journalism at the Hogeschool in Utrecht. He started a website devoted to freedom of speech and open debate in Sierra Leone, an act that because it is critical of the current government carries an automatic prison sentence, or worse, if he is forced to return.
According to INSI, less than 6 months ago a journalist was beaten into a coma in Sierra Leone for writing an investigative report on corruption at a government hospital.

Ahmad Tejan Kabbah won 70 percent of the vote in 2002 after years of war

Meanwhile, Mason has suffered serious illness, first his liver then his heart. He had open-heart surgery and showed me the "zipper" scar, a tell-tale sign of that operation. Shortly after that, his last appeal was denied, more than likely due to the "counter-indication" still attached to his name.

Mason was thrown out of the asylum program and his ID was confiscated. He had no papers and no income.

Abspoel confirmed that for many years "it was normal practice to throw them out with nothing". According to Abspoel, the government has promised not to do it anymore, but still does.

Mason got another lawyer who has been trying to clear the notation from his name and to request a new appeal. The Committee to Protect Journalists in New York has written a letter about the climate of fear among journalists in Sierra Leone and the recent arrest for one journalist for "seditious libel" against the government.

Mason has also received a letter in support of his case from John E Leigh, the former Sierra Leonean ambassador to the US and High Commissioner to Canada.
So what was he doing that led to his arrest? Fixing his bicycle on the pavement in front of his house. Police approached him and asked immediately for his ID. Mason showed them his last letter on the state of his case, but he was forcibly removed to the Tilburg PI where prisoners wait for deportation orders.

Abspoel has confirmed that people can be imprisoned for over a year in prisons like PI Tilburg "for committing no crime" and that refugee organisations are now making their own ID cards for those with no papers so they have something semi-official to show authorities.

Mason claims he was treated roughly until they saw his surgical scar. He also claims he was put into solitary confinement for several days. As the Ministry has refused to comment on his case, we have been unable to confirm or deny this incident, although there are many cases on record of alleged "rough treatment".

His latest lawyer has told him not to speak to the press and not to write to the Raad van State, the highest appeals court for administrative law in the Netherlands, or the Court of Human Rights. But he has done all three. Mason is a desperate man; he does not understand why he is being treated like a criminal.

As the guard came over to the table to announce there was only 5 more minutes to visiting time, I asked him if he wanted me to contact any friends to visit him? No, he doesn't like visitors because he is strip searched each time.

As I got up to leave, he said he had seen newspaper reports about journalists being kidnapped in Iraq. He feels — psychologically — as if he too has been kidnapped. He wants his story told.

20 April 2005

[Copyright Expatica 2005]

Subject: Dutch news + Asylum in the Netherlands + Ernest Mason + Sierra Leone

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