In a region of Africa not known for tolerating independent minded journalists, the Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists (CCPJ) is delighted to announce a unique achievement. A long and traumatic experience for Mohammed Bangura, a Sierra Leone journalist, ended on October 7 when he arrived at Pearson International Airport in Toronto after more than one year in self-imposed exile after fleeing government persecution in his homeland.
CCPJ first learned of Bangura when he was targeted by the Sierra Leone authorities for exposing government corruption. It has subsequently played a fundamental role in orchestrating his successful bid to become a government-sponsored refugee. In 1994, Bangura and three other journalists were charged with sedition, defamatory libel, and publishing a false report, for an editorial reprinting allegations that the former President of Sierra Leone, Valentine Strasser, had travelled to Antwerp to sell diamonds worth US $43 million. CCPJ provided funds for Bangura's successful court defense.
In 1996, Bangura was freelancing for a newspaper and suggested the national election should be postponed due to instability in the country. He was subsequently abducted by unknown assailants and taken into captivity along with his sister. Here, he learned of his father's murder, while being subjected to torture at the hands of the same paramilitaries. After his relatives managed to bribe officials, Bangura was able to leave custody and flee to Turkey in August 1996, where he had a one month visa.
Bangura did not find sanctuary in Turkey, which does not welcome asylum seekers from Africa. He had no means to support himself and faced threats to his safety. After six months in Turkey, Bangura's situation was desperate. He had twice been arrested by Turkish police for residing illegally in the country and was facing deportation back to Sierra Leone. At this point CCPJ felt compelled to intervene. Although not usually involved in immigration matters, in February of this year CCPJ enlisted the help of an immigration lawyer in Toronto to help appeal for Bangura's safe transport to Canada as a status refugee.
After prolonged negotiations via fax and phone with international aid agencies and Immigration Canada, Bangura was provisionally accepted in April as a government-sponsored refugee. After a few minor set backs - the UNHCR originally rejected his bid for refugee status, and a superfluous request for a second medical examination - Bangura was formally accepted as a government- sponsored refugee in Canada.
Bangura's excitement upon arriving in Toronto last week was evident when he exclaimed: "I can't believe I'm finally here!" He is presently residing at a refugee support centre in downtown Toronto where he is the process of upgrading his skills and looking for employment in his chosen field of expertise.
Both Mohammed Bangura and Wayne Sharpe, Executive Director of the Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists are available for interviews.