DAKAR, Senegal – Lawmakers in Sierra Leone voted unanimously on Friday to abolish the death penalty, a momentous step that has made the West African country the 23rd on the continent to ban the death penalty.
The move was one more step in a goal long sought by civil society organizations and legal practitioners who view the death penalty as a holdover from Africa’s oppressive colonial history.
“It is a horrible punishment and we must get rid of it,” said Oluwatosin Popoola, legal adviser to the rights group Amnesty International, one of the main critics of the death penalty.
A large majority of the 193 member states of the United Nations have either abolished the death penalty or do not practice it.
“It is a dream come true in terms of criminal justice, to do away with such a heinous sentence,” said Simitie Lavaly, member of the Sierra Leone Human Rights Commission and lawyer who has represented death row inmates. .
Kanteh Yumkella, lawmaker and former presidential candidate, called the decision “momentary”.
“I can tell you that we had to think about it a bit,” he said. “We thought about the political use of the death penalty, which has harassed us.
He added, “We have had a story here where people have been charged with treason. Some were hanged.
The vote in Sierra Leone took place against the backdrop of a constant march in Africa to reject the brutal laws imposed by the former colonial masters. In April, Malawi declared the death penalty unconstitutional. In May 2020, Chad did the same.
Almost half of Africa’s 54 independent countries have abolished the penalty, more than double the number less than two decades ago.
While death sentences and executions have declined around the world in recent years, they do not necessarily reflect the growing number of countries that have banned the death penalty. At least part of the declines are attributable to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has slowed or delayed legal proceedings in many countries. And in some, such as the United States, federal executions escalated in 2020.
As in previous years, China tops the 2020 list of countries that execute the most people, killing thousands, according to Amnesty International, which compiles statistics on the death penalty. The exact figures for China are not known, as its data remains a state secret.
Next in 2020 are Iran, which executed at least 246 people, followed by Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and, in sixth place, the United States, with 17 executions. Most US executions were of federal prisoners in the last six months of President Donald J. Trump’s tenure, a turnaround after years of informal moratorium.
Sierra Leonean lawmakers on Friday replaced the death penalty with a maximum life sentence for certain crimes, including murder and treason. This means that judges will have the power to consider mitigating factors, for example if the defendant has a mental illness. They would not have had such flexibility if lawmakers had instead voted to replace the death penalty with a mandatory life sentence.
The last time the death penalty was carried out in Sierra Leone was in 1998, when at the height of a devastating civil war, 24 soldiers were executed by a firing squad for participating in a coup. ‘State the previous year.
Yet convicts have languished for years on death row, where their rights are minimal and where they know a new government could enforce the sentence without warning.
In 2016, the then Home Secretary publicly ordered the gallows of the central prison in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, to be cleaned after two men were sentenced to hang. The men had been convicted of murdering a popular DJ. While public opinion favored the hangings, they were never executed.
Dozens of death sentences in Sierra Leone are handed down each year. At the end of last year, at least 94 people remained on death row.
A Sierra Leonean woman was sentenced to death in 2010 for the murder of her abusive boyfriend. He had attacked her with a pipe and she picked up a knife to defend herself. She was only 17 and should not have been the subject of adult legal proceedings.
Another was convicted of murdering her daughter-in-law by giving her battery fluid – when in reality she had given the sick child water. She was sentenced to death for six years.
The two women were eventually released, with the help of AdvocAid, a nonprofit group that helps girls and women caught up in Sierra Leone’s legal system. But for years the prospect of execution hung over them.
Sabrina Mahtani, co-founder and former executive director of AdvocAid, said Sierra Leone’s decision to end the death penalty was remarkable, especially as it is still recovering from the 1991-2002 civil war characterized by intolerance, atrocities and extreme violence. She said Sierra Leone provided a model that more powerful countries like the United States should emulate.
“Here is a small country in West Africa which experienced a brutal civil war 20 years ago and which succeeded in abolishing the death penalty,” Ms. Mahtani said. “They would actually be an example to you, the United States, rather than always doing it the other way around. “
The government of President Julius Maada Bio has worked on several reforms of the criminal justice system, including the repeal of a law frequently used to suppress the media. In May, during a review of Sierra Leone’s human rights record at the United Nations, the government announced that it would also abolish the death penalty.
“This is really a big problem in every way, in Sierra Leone and abroad,” Popoola said.
Sierra Leone is the first of the English-speaking countries in West Africa to abolish the penalty.
Ten years ago, a commission in Ghana recommended abolition, but in recent years efforts have stalled.
In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, at least 2,700 people are on death row – by far the highest number on the African continent.
The Gambia was on track to abolish the death penalty last year when a new constitution was drafted. But it was rejected by Parliament. Still, the Gambian president has taken significant steps to move away from capital punishment, Popoola said.
These are all countries that, like Sierra Leone, gained independence from Britain in the late 1950s and 1960s, around the same time that colonial power carried out its last executions.
“The death penalty is a colonial imposition, and these laws were inherited from the UK,” Ms. Mahtani said.