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Sierra Leone gets rid of colonial death penalty

25 July 2021 at 16:38 | 668 views

Sierra Leone has made history, becoming the 110th country in the world to abolish the death penalty for all crimes

London based NGO, The Death Penalty Project, has played a significant role in bringing about this momentous change.

The Abolition of the Death Penalty Act 2021, passed unanimously in Parliament this afternoon and eradicated capital punishment for persons convicted of crimes such as murder, aggravated robbery and treason, removing the threat of execution for those currently on death row. In a progressive move, instead of replacing the death penalty with a mandatory life sentence, Sierra Leone will move to a system of judicial discretion where judges are able to consider mitigating circumstances.

The Death Penalty Project has been working with local partner AdvocAid, in Sierra Leone, since 2007 and together have been instrumental in achieving abolition. As well as directly supporting women on death row and other vulnerable prisoners by providing free legal assistance, the organisations have actively engaged with key stakeholders and policy makers on the issue of capital punishment. By sharing expertise and knowledge, The Death Penalty Project has supported a shift in conversation from one that focuses on harsh punishments and retribution, to one centered around human rights and justice.

Sierra Leone has repeatedly reaffirmed its commitment to upholding international human rights standards and obligations and President Bio has been vocal about his commitment to abolition throughout his presidency, stating in December 2020 that: “my Government believes in the sanctity of life of every citizen.”

In March of this year, The Death Penalty Project, AdvocAid and Carolyn Hoyle, Professor of Criminology and Director of the Death Penalty Research Unit at the University of Oxford, formally set out the case for abolition to President Bio. To assist the process, the group presented an evidenced based perspective on the fundamental problems with the death penalty; not least, its arbitrariness, unavoidable room for error and its violation of international human rights standards. They also detailed how and why the death penalty should be replaced with a flexible humane system of imprisonment, instead of life without parole.

The Death Penalty Project’s engagement promoting abolition has been supported and endorsed by the wider international community; including the British High Commission, the EU delegation to Sierra Leone, the Embassy of Ireland and the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany. The diplomatic community as well as the Sierra Leone Bar Association have all played a key role in consigning capital punishment to the history books in Sierra Leone.

Although no executions had been carried out in the country since 1998, judges continued to impose the mandatory death penalty, handing down death sentences, as recently as this year. There are at least 78 people on death row, all of whom will now be removed and have their death sentences quashed.

Sierra Leone is the second country in Africa to abolish in 2021. It follows Malawi, which abolished in April, and joins West African neighbours, Guinea, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, and Togo.

Betty’s Case

In 2017, The Death Penalty Project and AdvocAid supported Betty* who was sentenced to death for the murder of her nine-month-old daughter.

In June 2016, Betty was walking near her home in Pujehun, with her daughter tied to her back by a lappa (fabric-tie) when she encountered some unknown men. The men began to chase her. Fearing for her safety, she tried to outrun them but slipped and fell backwards onto rocks on the path. She immediately got up and continued running until she reached her town where she realised her daughter was no longer with her. The baby was later found with head injuries on the path where Betty had fallen but did not survive.

Betty was taken to the police station and informed of her daughter’s death. Interviewed in Mende, a language she barely spoke, without the presence of a lawyer, her statement was recorded in English, and then ‘interpreted’ by the police into Mende. In the statement, Betty allegedly confessed to the murder of her child. Unable to read or write, she was instructed to sign the confession with a thumbprint, the only evidence against her at trial.

The first time Betty saw a lawyer was at her hurried court proceedings. There was only one eyewitness presented, who supported her account of falling on the rocky path, and a pathologist agreed that the baby could have died from the fall. Notwithstanding, in October 2017, Betty was convicted of murder and received the mandatory sentence; death by hanging.

The Death Penalty Project and Advocaid, assisted Betty in appealing her conviction, arguing that her right to a fair trial had been violated. She also sought to challenge the constitutionality of the mandatory death sentence imposed on her. While the appeal was pending, Betty remained on death row, many miles from her children. Due to this distance and the stigma surrounding her incarceration, neither her family nor anyone from her community ever visited her. However, in January 2020, after three and a half years in custody and more than two on death row, Betty received a full pardon.

Source: The Death Penalty Project