“Politically motivated killings, torture, impunity, illegal detentions and police excesses were documented”
By Alpha Kamara-TV Salone USA
The United States has hit Sierra Leone hard on its gross human rights violations and abuses in 2021. This was contained in the US State Department country’s human rights report of 2021. The report among other things outlined unlawful politically motivated killings committed by state agents including the police. Here is a breakdown of the report and the issues highlighted.
Arbitrary deprivation of life and other unlawful or politically motivated killings
The report said there were reports that government agents committed unlawful killings and other arbitrary arrests.
“There were several credible reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. In April the Sierra Leone Police (SLP) shot and killed an unarmed youth in the capital city of Freetown during a student protest. Authorities arrested and dismissed the four police officers allegedly involved in the killing, and as of September they were standing trial”.
In April 2020, a riot broke out at Freetown Male Correctional Center, resulting in numerous injuries and 31 fatalities, including one corrections officer and 30 inmates. Following an independent investigation, Sierra Leone Correctional Services (SLCS) reported that the riot was sparked by several problems, including overcrowding, suspension of court hearings, and COVID-19 health restrictions. In response the government established grievance mechanisms for inmates to report complaints to correction facility management boards.
Torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment
There was one reported instance where government officials employed inhuman and degrading treatment. The Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone (HRCSL) called for an investigation of the police use of excessive force during a student protest at the Institute of Public Administration and Management in April. Officers stripped a female student and arrested her, fired teargas and smoke bombs into the crowd of students, arrested several protesters, and held them without bail. Authorities began an investigation, but no results were available as of September.
Impunity remained a significant problem in the security forces, notably in the SLP. Amnesty International noted improvements in police leadership’s enforcement of disciplinary measures, but other observers reported continuing lack of crowd control and human rights training. The IPCB investigates police misconduct.
Prison and detention center conditions
Prison and detention center conditions were harsh and sometimes life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, an inefficient justice system, lack of sufficient correctional facilities and personnel, physical abuse, lack of clean water, inadequate sanitary conditions, and a lack of proper medical care in prison facilities. In contrast with 2020, there were no significant prison riots or violent incidents that raised human rights concerns.
Physical Conditions: As of August the country’s 21 prisons, designed to hold 2,375 inmates, held 4,430, including 1,289 convicted prisoners. The most severe example of overcrowding was in the Freetown Male Correctional Center, designed to hold 324 inmates, which instead held 1,573 individuals. Some prison cells measuring six feet by nine feet held nine or more inmates. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Prison Watch and the SLCS reported that 13 prisons and detention centers were moderately overcrowded, and one inmate jailed in 2007 had yet to appear in court.
In most cases pretrial detainees were held with convicted prisoners. As of August the HRCSL, SLCS, and Prison Watch Sierra Leone reported that no prison or detention center facility held male and female inmates together. Conditions in detention centers, including lighting, space, and ventilation, were generally better for female inmates than for male inmates.
According to the SLCS, there were no juveniles in correctional facilities across the country. Nonetheless, it was often difficult to confirm the ages of inmates due to the pervasive lack of official documentation, which resulted in some juveniles being treated as adults and detained in adult correctional facilities.
Deaths in prisons
As of August the SLCS reported eight deaths in prisons and detention facilities due to malaria, respiratory and skin infections, and typhoid fever. The HRCSL and Amnesty International reported the causes of death were related to prison conditions, such as overcrowding and poor hygienic conditions.
The HRCSL and SLCS reported a shortage of prison staff, which resulted in a lack of security that endangered inmates’ safety. There was no report of prisoner-on-prisoner violence or authorities’ failure to maintain control.
Amnesty International and Prison Watch Sierra Leone reported overcrowding, unhygienic conditions, and insufficient medical services. Conditions in police station holding cells were poor, especially in small stations outside Freetown, and in Moyamba and Bo correctional centers. Lack of adequate physical facilities created life-threatening conditions for detainees. Holding cells in some facilities were often dark with little ventilation, and inmates slept on mattresses on bare floors. HRCSL reported poor toilet facilities in some correctional centers.
Cells often lacked proper lighting, space, bedding, ventilation, and protection from infectious diseases and mosquitoes. For example, the electricity at Moyamba Correctional Center was powered by a diesel generator, although management rarely had the funds to procure fuel, resulting in a lack of proper lighting. For security reasons authorities refused to allow inmates to sleep under mosquito nets, requiring inmates to use chemical repellents instead. Most prisons did not have piped water, and some inmates lacked sufficient access to potable water.
Officials referred inmates to local government hospitals for special care, which largely accepted the inmates as patients. At Bo Correctional Center, the medical officer reported that the Bo Government Hospital had stopped accepting inmate referrals requiring surgical operations until the SLCS provided funds to cover their medical expenses.
Correctional service authorities and the HRCSL reported there was no discrimination against inmates with disabilities. The HRCSL and Prison Watch Sierra Leone reported they had no information regarding abuse of inmates with disabilities.
Administration: There was no prison ombudsman, but senior prison officials were available to respond to complaints. Amnesty International reported that SLCS authorities generally investigated credible allegations of mistreatment of inmates.
Authorities permitted regular family visits and provided some correctional centers with a telephone for inmates to communicate with their relatives. The UN Development Program provided other correctional facilities with cellphones and credits for inmates to use to communicate with their families under supervision.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted monitoring by independent nongovernmental observers. International monitors had unrestricted access to the detention centers and police holding cells. The HRCSL, Amnesty International, and Prison Watch Sierra Leone monitored prisons frequently, especially after 2019 violence in Bo Correctional Center.
Improvements: Authorities constructed latrines and shower facilities in the Port Loko, Bo, Magburaka, and Moyamba district correctional facilities. Several correctional facilities also implemented prison industries, such as bread baking, agriculture, and carpentry, and established inmate earning schemes, creating bank accounts for participating inmates and regularly depositing earnings from work activities. Prison authorities issued new bedding and pillows to several correctional centers.
Arbitrary arrest or detention
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, but human rights groups such as Amnesty International and the HRCSL indicated that the SLP and chiefdom police occasionally arrested and detained persons arbitrarily, including members of opposition parties.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The law requires warrants for searches and arrests of persons taken into custody on criminal grounds, but arrests without warrants were common. The Campaign for Human Rights and Development International and Amnesty International reported some arrests were made without warrants and that the SLP did not follow proper arrest procedures in some instances.
The law requires authorities to inform detainees of the reason for their arrest within 24 hours and charge them in court within 72 hours for suspected misdemeanors or within 10 days for suspected felonies. Detainees, however, were not always informed promptly of charges brought against them.
The judiciary applied the bail system inconsistently and sometimes demanded excessive bond fees. Detainees have the right to access family members and to consult with an attorney in a timely manner. Lawyers generally were allowed unrestricted access to detainees. According to the director of Public Prosecution, an estimated 70 percent of inmates received legal representation, while Amnesty International reported 30 percent of accused persons received legal representation. Only defendants in the military justice system had automatic access to attorneys, whose fees were paid by the Ministry of Defense. Although there were 50 active state counsels (public defenders), the majority worked in the capital and were often overburdened, poorly paid, and available only for more serious criminal cases.
Arbitrary Arrest: There were reports of individuals held for questioning without being promptly informed of the reason for the arrest. The SLP and the chiefdom police held suspects in detention cells without explanation for up to three days for suspected misdemeanors and up to 10 days for suspected felonies. Chiefs sometimes subjected both adults and children to arbitrary detention and imprisoned them unlawfully in their homes or “chiefdom jails.” The Human Rights Commission reported cases of illegal detentions at several police stations and the Freetown Male Correctional Center.
On July 2, police arrested opposition All People’s Congress politician and Member of Parliament Emmanuel Saidu Conteh and three others, after customs officials’ detected firearms and ammunition impounded in a vehicle recently imported by them. Prosecutors charged the suspects with conspiracy to commit a felony and illegal importation and unlawful possession of arms and ammunition. At July court appearances, the presiding judge denied bail for Conteh and his three alleged accomplices and detained all four at the Freetown Male Correctional Facility. On August 2, the Freetown Magistrate Court released Conteh and other detainees on bail.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention remained a significant problem. As of August, 46 percent of the persons held in prisons and detention centers were convicted and 54 percent were in pretrial detention or on remand. The SLCS attributed the high percentage of pretrial detainees to a severe shortage of legal professionals and to the chief justice’s suspension of court sittings in 2020 due to COVID-19. A donor-funded program identified other specific reasons for extensive pretrial detention, such as magistrates and judges not consistently granting bail when warranted, the Ministry of Justice often failing to bring indictments, and inadequate information exchange and case management across the criminal justice system. Pretrial and remand detainees spent an average of three to five years in pretrial detention before courts examined their cases or filed formal charges. In extreme cases the wait could be as long as 14 years.
A notable case of lengthy pretrial detention was that of Mohamed Kamaraimba Mansaray, the 2018 Alliance Democratic Party presidential candidate, detained without bail since July 2020 under child abuse charges. Following reports of his deteriorating health, Kamaraimba’s representatives requested bail to seek medical attention. The presiding judge initially refused Kamaraimba’s requests, citing the seriousness of the crime, but after broad news and social media reporting, the judge released Kamaraimba on September 7.
Denial of fair public trial
The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary. Observers, including NGOs, assessed that the judiciary maintained relative independence.
In addition to the formal court system, local chieftaincy courts administer customary law with lay judges, primarily in rural areas. Appeals from these lower courts are heard by the magistrate courts. Paramount chiefs in villages maintained their own police and courts to enforce customary local law. Chieftaincy police and courts exercised authority to arrest, try, and incarcerate individuals. According to the HRCSL, traditional trials were generally fair, but there was credible evidence that corruption influenced many cases, as paramount chiefs acting as judges routinely accepted bribes and favored wealthier defendants. The HRCSL further reported that traditional authorities charged offenses not within their jurisdictional powers and violated the rights of persons when prescribing punishment.
To address this problem, the government sent 36 paralegals to rural areas in 2019 to improve access to justice and provide training for chiefdom officials, but the HRCSL reported that the number of paralegals and trainings were insufficient. The HRCSL and the SLP’s Family Support Unit (FSU) sometimes provided alternative dispute resolution (ADR) services to mediate and resolve rural civil disputes in partnership with the Legal Aid Board. The HRCSL referred cases that could not be resolved by ADR to the district magistrate court.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The Cyber Security and Crime Act of 2021, however, grants the government the power to designate certain computer systems as “critical” infrastructure and outlines the process for the search and seizure of electronic devices by law enforcement personnel or “other authorized persons.”
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