Inter Press Service Johannesburg
Activists Will Accept Only Full Abolition
By Lansana Fofana - Freetown - Sierra Leonean rights activists have served notice on the government that they will campaign against any attempt to retain the death penalty in the new constitution and insist the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are fully adopted.
Murder and robbery with violence should continue to be capital crimes in the revised constitution, the currently-sitting constitutional review commission has advised the government.
But the death penalty for treason and mutiny should be abolished, as long as no loss of life is involved.
The recommendations are believed to reflect the government's position on the death penalty. They are expected to be incorporated into the country's revised constitution which will be presented to parliament for ratification shortly.
"It is not enough to restrict the death penalty to cases of murder or aggravated robbery," Brima Sheriff, Amnesty International's director in Sierra Leone, told IPS.
"The death penalty must be abolished in its entirety because it has never been proven to be a deterrent. Its maintenance on the statute books violates the spirit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)."
John Caulker of the rights monitoring group Forum of Conscience agreed. Nothing less than full death penalty abolition was acceptable to activists, he told IPS.
"The government says it is committed to the implementation of the TRC's recommendations yet it is backtracking on one key issue -- the abolition of the death penalty. This sends conflicting signals.
"The time is now to mount our campaign mobilising abolitionist campaigners and civil society to continue this campaign. The constitutional review commission must be made to understand."
At the end of the 11-year civil war, the TRC was set up in 2002 to investigate the reasons for the conflict and recommend ways of preventing a re-occurrence. Its goal was to lay the foundations for reconciliation and healing.
The TRC argued that since 1971, the death penalty had often been used by governments to eliminate political opponents.
The last executions in Sierra Leone were in 1998. Twenty-six senior military officers, convicted for their alleged roles in a coup that ousted civilian president Ahmad Tejan Kabba a year before, were executed by firing squad.
Attorney General and minister of justice, Abdul Serry Kamal, has denied that that the maintenance of the death penalty would be a rejection of the TRC's recommendations.
"When you consider that we have come out of a war that consumed many lives, I think it is appropriate some of the punitive laws are kept on our statute books, though with some adjustments.
"The death penalty cannot altogether be abolished because crimes like murder are still being committed," he said.
Activists have accused the government of failing to implement other TRC recommendations on the welfare of prison inmates, including those on death row.
"There are no facilities for recreation and skills-training for death row inmates. This is inhuman and degrading. Once in the cell on death row, you are isolated, deprived of basic services and psychologically tortured," Caulker said.
But the government, which came to power a year ago, would do everything in its power to reverse the situation, he said.
Rights activists say the prison food is poor. Inmates are not issued with clothing or shoes. Cells are cold in the rainy season resulting in frequent outbreaks of diseases such as pneumonia and malaria.
But the acting director of the prisons department, Moses Showers, said all prisoners were being treated according to the rules.
"They all get normal rations of meals, toiletries and supplementary diets. In fact, the prisoners on death row get better diets than ordinary convicts. The prison laws do not discriminate against death row inmates."
The minister of the interior, Dauda Sulaiman Kamara, has agreed that prison conditions are "deplorable".
"There are no workshops, no libraries or recreational facilities for inmates and this in no way helps the prisoners to be reformed," he told IPS.
Sierra Leone's maximum security prison at Pademba Road in Freetown holds all the country's 14 death row inmates. Eleven of these were sentenced to death in 2003 for treason. They are still awaiting a decision on their appeals.
"We consider it mental torture and a clear denial of their rights to a speedy dispensation of justice," said Sheriff. "Justice delayed is justice denied. These people must have their appeals heard or be released without any further delays."
Kamara has promised the government will do its best "to ensure that death row inmates are not treated like lesser mortals".
But he said he would not support the TRC's call for death penalty abolition.