Dear President Koroma: 

Congratulations on your recent election as President of the Republic of Sierra Leone. As you may know, during your country's tragic armed conflict, Human Rights Watch was actively involved in reporting on violations of the laws of war and advocating for accountability for these crimes. Since the conflict's end in 2002, we have on numerous occasions expressed our concern regarding the lack of progress in addressing important issues underlying the civil war, including rampant corruption, gross public financial mismanagement, massive poverty amidst the country's vast natural resources, and weak institutions promoting the rule of law. We hope that your recent election will mark a turning point with respect to these important issues. We write today to urge you and your government to take concrete steps to address human rights concerns that impact on these issues. Our key concerns and recommendations are detailed below.

1. Striking Deficiencies within the National Judicial System: We remain extremely concerned about significant shortcomings within the judicial system, and the extent to which these severely undermine the rights of both victims and the accused. Problems include extortion and bribe-taking by court officials; insufficient numbers of judges, magistrates and prosecuting attorneys; frequent lack of representation for the accused; absenteeism by court personnel; inadequate remuneration for judicial personnel; and extended periods of arbitrary detention, including some held for up to six years without charge.

  • In order to relieve both the backlog of cases in the criminal justice system and the overcrowding problem within detention centers, we urge the Attorney General to embark on an immediate review of all pre-trial detainees held in Sierra Leone's prisons and to take all actions necessary to ensure that those currently awaiting trail are given a fair and prompt hearing.
  • We further urge you to prioritize the adequate staffing of court personnel, particularly within the Department of Public Prosecutions, which at present is seriously understaffed, most notably within the provinces.
  • The professionalism of judicial personnel must also be adequately monitored. Ensuring that disciplinary measures are taken against those involved in bribe-taking, intimidation of witnesses, or other unprofessional conduct is critical.
  • A recent report by the United Nations estimates that some ninety percent of prisoners detained in Sierra Leone's 13 prisons lack any legal representation. In order to ensure adequate representation for accused unable to retain counsel or secure bail, a mechanism for providing legal aid service should be established.

2. Detention Conditions: Conditions within Sierra Leone's detention facilities are so grossly inadequate as to constitute a de facto death sentence for a number of inmates. Hundreds of inmates endure overcrowding and a lack of adequate food, clothing, medicine, hygiene and sanitation. These conditions led to at least 16 prison deaths in 2007. We understand that as of this writing, the population in Pademba Road Prison, designed to house some 350 detainees, stands at over 1000.

  • While a thorough and prompt review of the legal status of all detainees would no doubt assist with overcrowding, we further urge you to conduct a thorough review of prison management and supply rationing to ensure that the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners are respected.
  • So as to promote Sierra Leone's adherence to the Beijing Rules on the Administration of Juvenile Justice (1985) with respect to the separation of juvenile and adult detainees, we urge you to establish and adequately staff special remand homes for all juvenile detainees.
  • Persistent allegations of mismanagement of food, medicines and other healthcare materials by prison authorities must be duly investigated and referred where appropriate to the Anti-Corruption Commission.

3. Corruption: Corruption in the public and private sectors in Sierra Leone remains a major obstacle to development and respect for human rights in that it robs the population of funds needed to support vital services such as education, water, and healthcare. The 2005 report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission noted that decades of corrupt rule by Sierra Leone's political elite had greatly contributed to the conditions that led to the armed conflict. As you are well aware, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) established in 2000 has been subject to political interference that rendered it unable in recent years to implement its mandate. This has been evident in the ACC's failure to investigate and prosecute offenses allegedly involving high-level government officials. Human Rights Watch welcomes your stated commitment to make the fight against corruption a priority of your government and is encouraged by the appointment of highly respected lawyer Abdul Tejan-Cole as ACC Commissioner.

  • In order to facilitate the work and independence of the ACC, we urge you to amend the legislative framework of the 2000 Anti-Corruption Act. Specifically, we urge you to push for a change in Articles 36-38 of the Act, which grant the power to indict to the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, as opposed to the ACC Commissioner. We believe legally empowering the ACC Commissioner to indict individuals implicated in corruption-related crimes would greatly serve to facilitate the independence of the commission.

4. Police Conduct: We are encouraged to learn that during the recent elections the Sierra Leonean police-once seen as an organ of the ruling party-acted professionally and impartially to quell violence generated by all sides. However, Human Rights Watch continues to receive frequent complaints of corrupt, unprofessional, and illegal conduct by mostly low-ranking police personnel. These include widespread extortion from civilians, requiring victims of crimes to pay the police to file reports or conduct investigations, and, in a few cases, sexual abuse of female detainees. While the police board charged with investigating these matters has suspended several police officers for misconduct, their cases have very rarely resulted in criminal prosecution. We therefore urge you to:

  • Ensure that proper disciplinary and judicial action is taken against police officers involved in unprofessional and criminal conduct.
  • Establish within the Ministry of the Interior a well functioning complaint mechanism to allow for the registration of citizen grievances about inappropriate police conduct.

5. Abolition of the Death Penalty: We welcome the November 1 release of three men-including former RUF spokesman Omrie Golley, arrested in January 2006 on treason charges-who if convicted could have faced death. As you were well aware, the grounds for their arrest appeared to be politically motivated, and the trial was marked by a failure to respect basic legal norms, including the alleged fabrication of evidence. However we remain concerned about the 20 individuals, including one woman, who remain on death row, 10 of whom following a December 2004 conviction for treason in connection with a 2003 coup attempt.

Human Rights Watch opposes the infliction of capital punishment in all cases: because of its inherent cruelty, because it is most often carried out in a discriminatory manner, and because the fallibility of all criminal justice systems assures that even when full due process of law is respected innocent persons are sometimes executed, and such miscarriages of justice can never be corrected. This view is supported by progressive interpretation of the right to life and integrity of the person, as enshrined in international instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. Momentum is gathering to end capital punishment globally and certainly in Africa. In 1999, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, in its resolution adopted at the 26th Ordinary session in Kigali (Rwanda), called upon all States that still maintain the death penalty to "consider establishing a moratorium on executions." Furthermore, the abolition of the death penalty and the immediate repeal by Parliament of all laws authorizing the use of capital punishment was a key recommendation made by the 2005 report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

  • We therefore urge your government to abolish the death penalty. Doing so would mark an important milestone in the fair and humane administration of justice in Sierra Leone.

6. National Human Rights Commission: We were encouraged to learn that after years of delay, the National Human Rights Commission-charged with investigating and reporting on human rights abuses and pushing for the implementation of recommendations contained in the 2005 report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission-has finally been established. However, we understand that for much of this year the commission was under-funded, undermining its ability to carry out its mandate.

  • We therefore urge you to ensure that the National Human Rights Commission is adequately funded and allowed to carry out its mandate with no interference from the government.

Thank you for your attention to these important issues that, if addressed, would contribute greatly to consolidating the peace and building respect for the rule of law in Sierra Leone. Human Rights Watch stands ready to assist you in these efforts.

Sincerely,

Peter Takirambudde
Executive Director, Africa Division
Human Rights Watch

Corinne Dufka
West Africa Regional Director
Human Rights Watch

Cc:

  • Zainab Hawa Bangura, Minister of Foreign Affairs
  • Abdul Serry Kamal, Minister of Justice and Attorney General
  • Dauda Sulaiman Kamara, Minister of Internal Affairs
  • Musu Kandeh, Minister of Social Welfare and Children's Affairs
  • David Carew, Minister of Finance and Development
  • Abdul Tejan-Cole, ACC Commissioner
  • Jamesina E.L. King, Head of the National Human Rights Commission
  • Victor Angelo, Executive Representative of the Secretary General