Is the Lebanese Envoy Abusing Her Diplomatic Status?

By Our Diplomatic Correspondent

The world over, nations enter into diplomat ties to strengthen their lines of cooperation not just at the levels of government to government, but in other areas of engagements like people-to-people.  Envoys are also required to respect the laws of their host nations.

This however appears not to be the case in Sierra Leone where the Lebanese Embassy has faced series of accusations levied against it by two former staff over what they referred to as unlawful dismissal and an apparent refusal to effect payment of their end of service benefits as required by the laws of Sierra Leone.

The workers, Lansana Sesay and Anthony Kamara who had both served the Embassy for over twenty (20) years were on 13th March, 2019 summarily dismissed by the Ambassador through a letter sent to them by a law firm in Sierra Leone acting for and on behalf of the Embassy of Lebanon through its Ambassador.

The Lebanese Embassy alleged that on 7th February 2019, both workers assaulted the Ambassador “by approaching her in a threatening manner and speaking in a way that was rude and abrasive…” an allegation denied by both Lansana Sesay and Anthony Kamara who allege that on the contrary, it was the ambassador that treated them in a threatening manner when they had courteously requested for their January, 2019 salaries.

Speaking to SierraEye Magazine, one of the workers, Lansana Sesay who was the Embassy’s Protocol Officer said that prior to the arrival of the New Ambassador to the country in 2017, their work schedule since 1993 had been six hours a day, something six other ambassadors had maintained for decades.

“On the arrival of the current Ambassador” Sesay said, “she changed my designation from Protocol Officer to Messenger and did same with official working hours for all workers, making it eight (8) hours a day, from six (6) hours which had been the norm for decades.”

Sesay maintained that under the administration of previous Ambassadors, salaries and other emoluments to workers would be paid before the 29th of every month “but on her arrival as the new Ambassador, she changed that to the first week of the other month on the pretext that she would have to wait for transfers of monies from Lebanon to Sierra Leone which as a matter of fact, is misleading.”

Sesay further alleged that they were not given lunch breaks and workers not being allowed to go home until she had left the office. “There is no respect for workers, and we were called names by her.  Workers were entitled to a 20% pay increase every two years but that got stopped when she arrived.”

According to Sesay the Embassy would only pay monthly salaries on the end of the month and/or first week of the other month.  “So, we were expecting January salaries on 31st; we never got paid.  We waited till 7th February 2019 when we politely approached the Lebanese Ambassador, to ask for our January salaries as it is our legal entitlement.”

Sesay alleges that the Ambassador reportedly took offence to their reasonable request for their salaries, and responded in a discourteous manner, hurled abusive language at them and made several threatening remarks against their persons. “She then ordered but failed to get an OSD personnel deployed at the Embassy to evict us from the embassy’s compound.” 

“Having failed to get the cooperation of the OSD personnel and other state authorities to evict us from the compound the Ambassador later called the Local Unit Commander of the Lumley Police Division who arrived with a truck load of officers and we were arrested on allegations of threatening to kill the ambassador”, Sesay narrated further disclosing that they were detained at Lumley Police Station for a day and later transferred to the Criminal Investigations Department where they also spent another day and were later put on bail.

Continuing his ordeal Sesay said that “on the 8th February 2019, the matter was transferred to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) Headquarters for investigation where we were further detained for another night on the basis of orders from above but we were subsequently released on bail on Saturday the 9th February 2019.”

Upon inquiries made by this author, SierraEye was informed that when the Ambassador was asked to sign the statement she made to the CID Officer, she allegedly refused to sign the said statement and also allegedly refused to allow the CID officers to take statements from other members of the staff at the Embassy who were present. Our investigations reveal further that the allegations made by the Ambassador were not supported or substantiated by anyone present at the time when the workers were requesting their salaries. 

Sesay continuing his story said that “after much delay we were invited by the Lawyers for the Ambassador to receive our January salaries, which we refused to receive insisting on our receipt of our salaries together with our end of service benefits. We were then told that the Ambassador through her solicitors, needed confirmation from Lebanon as to whether we were entitled to any benefits as according to her our employment was under Lebanese Law and not Sierra Leonean Law.”

Quite upset about the entire incident Sesay lamented that nothing could be more unjust than to have two responsible family men with no criminal records spend two days behind bars based on false and baseless allegations. The aggrieved workers through their legal representatives, on 14th February 2019 made an official complaint against the Ambassador to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs bringing to their attention the conduct of the Ambassador, appealing for appropriate steps to be taken to ensure payment of salaries and benefits are paid to the workers. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond.

The Lawyers for the employees on the 4th March 2019 also brought to the attention of the Ministry of Labour and Social Security the case of these workers raising concerns and explaining what had transpired between the workers, the Ambassador and the Police. That letter also urged the Ministry to take appropriate steps to encourage the Ambassador to pay the workers all entitlements owing and due to them. However, the employees have since not heard from them.

Mr Sesay speaking on Radio Democracy brought this matter to the attention of the public. The Minister of Labour who was on the same radio programme said, that the matter had never been brought to his attention despite evidence of his secretary signing for a copy of the letter. The Minister however promised to immediately look into the matter. Mr Sesay alleged that since that promise by the Minister no action has been taken to resolve this matter.

Despite the efforts of the employees and their several appeals to the authorities including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Labor for their intervention to ensure justice is done to the employees, all such efforts have so far proven to be in vain.

SierraEye Magazine contacted Ambassador Brigitta Al Ojeil via phone but she did not respond to calls, nor did she reply to text messages, requesting comments from her. SierraEye also asked the Minister of Labour and Social Security, Adekunle King for comment on the issue but he didn’t respond.

For Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Solomon Jamiru Esq, the first time hearing of the issue was when SierraEye contacted him for comment, promising to revert “at earliest convenience.” He couldn’t by the time we went to press.

The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961 grants wide ranging of immunities to diplomats, including immunity from being sued. Sierra Leone being a signatory to the convention serves as an obstacle in taking effective legal action against the Lebanese Ambassador to recover the rights and full entitlements of the employees through the courts in Sierra Leone. The effect is that the employees are unable to institute legal action due to diplomatic immunity.

However immunity can be waived by the Lebanese Government or the Ambassador may be recalled, both of which seem unlikely. Sierra Leone can also declare her Persona Non Grata and expel her.

However since such steps are rarely taken, Sesay is asking the Government to help him and his fellow worker obtain their legal rights.  “I have enjoyed working at the Lebanese Embassy for decades and made very good friends there and worked for some very pleasant Ambassadors and all I ask is our problem to be resolved amicably. I took my case to the Lebanese Committee who advised the Embassy to pay and when she did not the Lebanese Committee mentioned our plight in a petition they filed to the Lebanese Foreign Ministry against the Ambassador.”

At the time of printing this magazine the workers were yet to receive their salaries and end of service benefits.

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