H.E. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah
President of the Republic of Sierra Leone
Freetown, Sierra Leone

Your Excellency,

Human Rights Watch welcomes your efforts and those of your government to promote the rule of law, accountability, and respect for human rights in Sierra Leone. The May 25, 1997 coup and subsequent military rule shattered the country's infrastructure, notably that of the judicial system. With limited economic resources and amidst continued fighting and atrocities in rural areas, the Sierra Leonean government has made important progress towards upholding its obligations under national law and international human rights standards while promoting reconciliation. We similarly appreciate the efforts of your government to make public the judicial proceedings of the recent treason trials and to respect due process.

This past Monday, a Court Martial in Freetown passed death sentences for thirty-four soldiers accused of treason and other offenses. Later that day, the Minister of Information declared that in respect to the trials, "at the end of the day the proceedings will be adjudged acceptable by both local and international standards." He further stated that the Sierra Leonean government would responsibly "act within the law of Sierra Leone and the terms of the relevant International Conventions to which this country is a signatory."

The lack of a right to appeal to a higher court for the thirty-four - who now face execution by firing squad-is in sharp contrast to this and other statements by your government calling for respect for international human rights norms. As a State Party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), as well as its Optional Protocol which provides for individual communications, the government of Sierra Leone is obliged to guarantee the right to review by a higher court.

In light of the lack of a right to appeal, several of those sentenced to death have submitted petitions to the United Nations Human Rights Committee as provided for by the Optional Protocol, to which Sierra Leone has been a State Party since August 1996. More petitions from those sentenced are likely to follow. We call on your government to adhere to its obligations as a Party to the Optional Protocol and allow the petition process to run its due course. To do so would send a clear and positive message to the Sierra Leonean people as well as the international community emphasizing your government's will to make human rights a priority while holding perpetrators accountable under due process of national and international law. We would additionally urge your government, as a Party to the ICCPR, to in a timely fashion make structural changes in the military court system to ensure the right to appeal.

We also draw your attention to the inherent fallibility of all criminal justice systems - even those with long histories of respect for due process - and the fact that innocent persons are sometimes executed, even when the law is respected. Sierra Leone's fledgling justice system - which members of your own government have described as totally demolished during the coup - provides all the more reason for avoiding the use of the death penalty. Executions are irreversible, and such miscarriages of justice can never be corrected. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch objects to capital punishment in all countries and in all circumstances due to its inherent cruelty.

During this particularly difficult and formative period in Sierra Leonean history, we would encourage the government of Sierra Leone to maintain national reconciliation as a priority while dispensing justice and holding perpetrators fully accountable for human rights abuses. With this in mind, if the death penalty is upheld, action from the Prerogative of Mercy Committee in accordance with Sierra Leonean law would be appropriate. In this case, as head of the Committee, we appeal to your Excellency to commute the death sentences. We would further urge the Committee to closely follow the cases of the sixteen civilians sentenced to death in August for treason and other charges and intervene at the appropriate moment if their sentence is upheld by the appeals court.

In your efforts to encourage reconciliation while holding perpetrators accountable, we thus urge you to avoid adding to the death toll in Sierra Leone by allowing the sentences to be carried out and instead seek punishments other than the death penalty. On Monday, the Sierra Leonean Minister of Information also stated that "the law should also be applied in appropriate cases as a deterrent to avert a recurrence of this nightmare and to protect the citizens and the nation itself." Indeed, the death penalty has never been proven to have a deterrent effect on violent crime.

Despite the climate of public hatred for those accused of treason and other crimes, and calls for revenge killings, the government of Sierra Leone has thus far made courageous steps to uphold its obligations under international law and to avoid people taking justice into their own hands. In no circumstances, however, should a fair trial and the right to appeal be considered luxuries, even amidst public cries for revenge. Nor should the death penalty be imposed as an alleged solution to stop further abuses or in the name of protecting the public.

We thus respectfully urge your Excellency to ensure that the human rights of those sentenced to death in Sierra Leone are respected and wish you and the Sierra Leonean people success in rebuilding a Sierra Leone based firmly on the foundation of rule of law.

Peter Takirambudde
Executive Director, Africa Division
Human Rights Watch