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Sierra Leone TV Show Offers Legal Advice for Women

Women sit on the porch of a house in the Congo Town neighborhood of Sierra Leone's capital Freetown, April 28, 2012.
FREETOWN — In Sierra Leone, a group called AdvocAid is taking an innovative approach to helping educate women on their legal rights - by dramatizing issues on television.

One woman in Sierra Leone, Fatima, says she'll never forget the experience of police throwing her in detention for a crime she never committed.

"The room where I was sleeping was filthy, no care and I don't have right to talk to my relative, my mother," she said.

Fatima - not her real name - was accused of embezzling 10 million leones, or just over 2,000 U.S. dollars.

She said she was denied her basic legal rights and did not know any better. The maximum time a person can be detained under Sierra Leonean law without being charged in court is three days. Fatima says she was detained for six days and had no access to a lawyer.

Word got out to AdvocAid. Members of the non-governmental organization provided Fatima with a lawyer and the case was eventually dismissed for lack of evidence.

Her situation is not uncommon because most women do not know their rights, she said.

"I'm seeing my friends suffering, mostly ladies suffering, in police station. "

Today, Fatima is a paralegal and works for the same group that helped her. In the past year, AdvocAid has helped more than 400 women in Sierra Leone who were denied their legal rights in some way.

Fatima said the most common problem is that women are not informed of the reason for their arrest.

To help empower women, Advocaid has joined forces with a local production company in Freetown to create a television drama series called "Police Case."

On the set of the show, actors are filming an episode about a character named Adama, facing a charge of domestic violence, who was arrested and thrown in jail without access to a lawyer.

Whitsunnette Wright is the Sierra Leonean actress who plays Adama.

"I also want to be a part, to pass on message to people who have been involved in some of these issues. We hope that people understand how they should be treated," Wright said.

Treatment a woman known as M.K. wishes she had been given. M.K. said she is grateful to be alive after being accused of murdering her stepdaughter in 2003. She was denied her right to a fair trial and ended up on death row, she said.

M.K. was the longest serving woman on death row in Sierra Leone until Advocaid helped prove her innocent.

She hopes "Police Case" will help others know about their legal rights so they do not have to go through what she did.

Advocaid's Fatima says the TV series is only meant to educate, not to put the legal system or police in a bad light.

"Some are doing a good job but some are not," Fatima said. "I always have a problem with those not doing a good job."

Meanwhile, on the set of the show, actors are in a cell at a police station, rehearsing.

One policeman watching the scene says the series is welcome, but he also hopes that viewers realize most police do want to help them.

"We are not here to seize any rights against anybody," he said. "We are here to prevent crime and protect citizens, to make sure they are in a safe country and to make sure everything is safe."

"Police Case" is to set to air at the end of July.