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Sierra Leone Government Denies Role in Opposition Leader's Alleged Questioning

The national chairman of Sierra Leone’s leading opposition party has said he suspects the government of President Ernest Bai Koroma was behind his brief detention and interrogation at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C. on June second.

John Benjamin of the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) said he believes the government was hoping to stop him from meeting with his supporters in the United States.

But the Sierra Leone foreign ministry has denied Benjamin’s allegations saying admitting foreigners into the United States was exclusively the prerogative of U.S. immigration.

Benjamin told VOA U.S. immigration authorities questioned him on his arrival about human rights abuses and atrocities in Sierra Leone's last military government.

“They said they wanted to know what I was coming for. I told them. Then they said they had information about human rights and atrocities, blah, blah, blah. But I think it was just a political gimmick,” he said

Benjamin said he has visited the United States on many occasions as an ordinary Sierra Leonean and was never interrogated.

But he said what has changed and which the ruling All People’s Congress (APC) government might not be comfortable with is the fact that he is now the leader of the main opposition.

“You see…America is the biggest country in the world, the strongest economy and if you have support here it makes your work easier back home. And it would not be in their (Koroma government) interest for us to come and have a strong base here in America,” Benjamin said.

Benjamin said U.S. authorities questioned him about human rights abuses during Sierra Leone’s last military government.

He said he served as a civilian cabinet minister but denied he ever violated anyone’s human rights.

“I was sought of most of the time working hard to ensure that we have sanity, that people’s rights were protected. I have nothing to fear. So they did not need to come after me in America,” He said.

Benjamin said if the Koroma government had any concerns about past human rights abuses it should have turned to the Sierra Leone court system for redress.

Sierra Leone Foreign Minister Zainab Bangura denied her government had anything to do with Benjamin’s alleged detention and interrogation by U.S. immigration authorities.

“I think this is unfortunate for somebody as educated as John Benjamin to even think that the Sierra Leone government has any influence with the United States government,” she said.

Bangura said her government did not even know that Benjamin had left Sierra Leone. She said she first heard about it after receiving what she described as a serious late night phone call from President Koroma.

“The first person I heard this from was the president who called me very late at night, very serious, and asked me to summon the American Ambassador and find out why John Benjamin was actually being interrogated,” Bangura said.

She said it would not be in the interest of the Koroma government to pick a fight with the opposition at a time when the government has just signed a communiqué to develop better working relations with the opposition.