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Rights Group Pushes Sierra Leone to Ban Death Penalty


File - Freetown, Sierra Leone

File - Freetown, Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone is updating its constitution for the first time since 1991, and one issue being watched closely by human rights groups is the abolishment of the death penalty.

Sierra Leone currently has a moratorium on executions, the last one was in 1998. One person is on death row in the country.

According to Amnesty International, 682 people were executed worldwide in 2012. The number of people sentenced to death fell from 1,923 in 2011 to 1,722 in 2012.

Overall that suggests the global trend is moving towards abolition. The West African region is also following steps toward abolition, according to Solomon Sogbandi, director for Amnesty's chapter in Freetown.

"We have Ghana moving towards abolition, we have Benin moving," Sogbandi said. "In West Africa, we really have West African countries moving towards abolition and Sierra Leone also is equally moving towards abolition. The trend is encouraging to say the least."

But he points out Gambia is one country that outlawed capital punishment and then reversed the move and held executions. He worries the same could happen in Sierra Leone.

Amnesty and other human rights groups in Sierra Leone are pushing to see the death penalty abolished in the next constitution.

Ibrahim Tommy, executive director for the Center of Accountability and Rule of law in Sierra Leone, says there are many reasons to have it abolished.

"It is a reversibility, is one," he said. "Once you are executed, even if additional information, new evidence appears, there is no way you can get your life back."

Constitutional Review Committee Secretary Augustine Sheku says the committee will be looking at the death penalty, but it is an entrenched clause.

"Now because it is an entrenched clause, it means government by itself or parliament by itself, cannot in any way review or change it without consulting the people," Sheku said, suggesting a referendum will have to be held.

That is the reason the government has not changed the law yet, says Sierra Leone Attorney General and Minister of Justice Frank Kargbo. But the entire proposed constitution will have a referendum.

"It is better we just do one referendum as opposed to having a separate one, just to amend section 16 of the constitution," Kargbo said.

Sogbandi says Amnesty has been doing outreach to educate people that the death penalty is a violation of the right to life according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He says that will help give people a better understanding of why they should vote to abolish the death penalty.

Amnesty International is also urging the government of Sierra Leone to support a resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on executions at the 2014 UN General Assembly in December.

"That shows the commitment of the government towards moving towards global moratorium and in country," Sogbandi said, "[as well] to ensure that the death penalty is abolished in our books. "

The constitutional review process is expected to last at least two years.
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