Monday, March 19, 2007

Fighting for others

Attorney-at-law and rights advocate Margarette Macaulay knows a thing or two about standing up for one?s rights. She has been standing up for her rights and those of her family since her days in her native country Sierra Leone.

Her philosophical roots can be found on her parents' farm in the capital Freetown where she grew up as a girl with two other sisters and a brother. There she and her siblings were taught by her father that no job was a woman's job. They all did the same chores, played the same games and were made to think of each other as their equal.

Later in life that position was to be channelled into the work of this attorney-at- law who now sits as a judge on the Inter-American Court on Human Rights.

Her journey to Jamaica started after she completed her law degree in 1966 in London and married then Attorney-General of Sierra Leone, Berthan Macaulay, a marriage that was to last some 40 glorious years. But the first seven years were to bring some interesting times.

No sooner had they got married when the most severe of challenges came. A vibrant, young and newly-wed Margarette Macaulay left London for Freetown, Sierra Leone, to start a new life with her husband.

The new life they found together was peaceful at the start but only a few months into marriage the country sunk into turmoil and the next seven years would be anguish for both of them.

It was a very historical time in Sierra Leone, she recalled. A general election was held that same year, but only moments after the leader of the All Peoples Congress (APC) Siaka Stevens, was announced winner something terrible happened.

Marshall law was declared by the head of the army because the then Opposition Leader had inveigled the Governor-General to appoint him as Prime Minister before the election were completely over she related.

Three days later there was another coup and Brigadier David Lansana was put under house arrest by some of his own senior officers, who took over the government.

A curfew followed and Margarette and Berthan were stuck in their house for days or may be weeks. The next few weeks were just as chaotic.

Third coup

A third coup followed and the National Reformation Council (NFC) took over the government and recalled one of their old colonels, Juxon Smith, to head the government. Things returned to normal but only for about one year.

The officers overthrew him after 14 months in power and re-installed Siaka Stevens as Prime Minister. Berthan had already resigned as Attorney-General two months into Smith?s leadership and went back into private practice refusing to work under an army government.

He (Stevens) was the biggest curse that Sierra Leone could have had, a stern Margarette Macaulay recalled.

While working on a case in the Republic of Gambia, Margarette and Berthan got some news. Berthan was wanted by the police.

Friends who were there told us that they had heard on the news that some people were being detained and arrested and that there was a list of people who the Siaka Stevens government wanted and that his name was on the list, and so we should consider not returning, she told me. But they returned anyway.

They were greeted by the military at the airport in Freetown as they arrived and taken to the commissioner?s office. They were not arrested, but their passports were taken and they were allowed to go home.

Military officers

The next evening, about 20 armed military officers barged into their house as the couple hosted a few friends for dinner.

?My husband asked Where is your warrant? and he responded that the Prime Minister had instructed him to come and arrest him, she said. Berthan went.

After several weeks of detention he was charged with treason, a crime punishable by death in Sierra Leone, but Berthan fought the charges representing himself and 16 others charged with the same crime. After 13 months of trial he managed to get himself and everyone else acquitted of the charges with Margarette by his side.

I assisted him throughout the preparation, I don't think I have ever worked as hard as that, she said. I worked very hard and smoked a lot of cigarettes at nights. I even had to smoke some cigars, she continued.

But the biggest ordeal was yet to come.

After the trial ended in 1972 Berthan went back into private practice only to find his life almost snuffed out in the presence of a judge and jury.

He had taken up a case on behalf of some leaders in the opposition, who had found themselves on trial for murder. It was alleged that one of their vehicles had knocked down and killed a pedestrian in an area where they were not even present.

Margarette was on her way to meet Berthan for lunch when the incident happened. As she drew near the court she noticed a multitude of soldiers and policemen and frantic people.

The prelims (preliminary hearings) were going on when they tried to kill my husband in court. He was shoved down by two police officers under a bench and they lay on top of him because they threw a lit dynamite into the court and somebody threw it out of the window,?she recalled.

Move out

The attempt on his life prompted the couple to move out of the country and with the assistance of Commonwealth countries such as Jamaica they did, and the couple moved to the island in 1974 where Mrs. Macaulay finished her masters degree in International Law at the Norman Manley Law School at the University of the West Indies, Mona.

In 1978 her passion for advocacy began to grow.

I had started talking to women. I thought Jamaican women were fantastic, but I noticed that when it cane to their rights they didn't seem to know their rights at all, she noted.

She then started to talk to women's groups and helping them to find ways o the awareness of women?s rights in the country and lobbying for improved legislation to cement these rights.

Mrs. Macaulay has headed several women's rights organisations and continues to be an advocate. She joined the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research in Action of which she later became chairperson. She is also a former president of the Association of Women?s Organisations in Jamaica.

She played a key role in lobbying for equality for children born out of wedlock under the Status of Children Act in the 1970s as well as for their mothers. In more recent times she has also played a forefront role in the formulation and advocacy of the Child Care and Protection Act.

In August of last year Margarette Macaulay was appointed a judge to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights.

Source: Jamaica Gleaner News - Fighting for others - Monday | March 19, 2007