Government soldiers committed widespread human rights violations, including torture and extrajudicial executions. Over 100 political detainees held without charge or trial, including prisoners of conscience, were released. Several journalists were detained for brief periods. The trial of nine soldiers charged with conspiring to overthrow the government in September had not concluded by the end of the year. They were reported to have been tortured and ill-treated; one died in custody. A soldier was sentenced to death by military court. By the end of the year some 60 people were under sentence of death. There were no executions. Armed opponents of the government were also responsible for deliberate and arbitrary killings and torture. In January, Captain Valentine Strasser, Chairman of the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC), which came to power in a military coup in 1992, was overthrown by his second-in-command, Brigadier Julius Maada Bio. Despite arguments that elections for a civilian government scheduled for February be postponed because of continued armed conflict between government forces and the armed opposition Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a national consultative conference overwhelmingly decided that elections should proceed. A civilian government headed by President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah took office in March. The first talks between government representatives and the RUF since the conflict began in 1991 took place in February and peace negotiations continued with the new government. A cease-fire came into effect in March, but confrontations between government soldiers, local hunters (kamajors) acting as a civil defence force and rebel forces continued. Negotiations were held in Côte d'Ivoire, under the auspices of the Ivorian Government, and included UN, Organization of African Unity and Commonwealth delegations. Although significant progress towards a settlement had been made by May, disagreement remained on disarmament and withdrawal of foreign troops, including mercenaries of a South African company, Executive Outcomes. However, a peace agreement, which contained important human rights provisions, was signed on 30 November. It provided for an immediate cessation of hostilities and an international monitoring group to monitor the implementation of the agreement, including the cease-fire, disarmament and demobilization. Some of the worst atrocities of the conflict occurred in the period before the elections. In an apparently deliberate strategy by both government and RUF forces to prevent elections, civilians were mutilated: limbs were cut off and slogans denouncing the elections were carved into victims' backs and chests. Despite the cease-fire declared in March, civilians continued to be tortured and killed. Establishing responsibility for human rights abuses remained difficult; there was often little or no distinction in the appearance and behaviour of soldiers and rebels. For example, the identity of those responsible for an attack on Foindu, Kenema District, in late August, during which dozens of civilians were killed, remained unclear. Hundreds of thousands of people remained internally displaced or were refugees in neighbouring Guinea and Liberia, although following the peace agreement in November, large numbers of displaced people began to return to their villages. However, during December reports continued to be received of attacks on civilians by armed groups in Tonkolili District, Northern Province, and Moyamba District, Southern Province. There was no attempt to investigate human rights abuses in the conflict or to bring those responsible to justice. Shortly before ceding power, the NPRC passed The Indemnity and Transition Decree, 1996, (NPRC Decree No. 6) which provided immunity from prosecution for acts committed by members of the NPRC, the armed forces and those acting under their authority since 1992. In June, President Tejan Kabbah promised an amnesty for RUF forces and the peace agreement contained guarantees that no action would be taken against any individual for activities in pursuit of the RUF's aims. A National Unity and Reconciliation Commission was inaugurated in July to investigate abuses against civilians by the NPRC. However, its mandate did not include investigation of or compensation for human rights abuses committed by either government soldiers or RUF forces during the conflict. Legislation allowing indefinite detention without charge or trial was revoked by NPRC Decree No. 6 and in July the Constitutional Reinstatement Provisions Act, 1996, reinstated parts of the 1991 Constitution suspended by the NPRC. In August, the government acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its (First) Optional Protocol and to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Government soldiers were responsible for widespread human rights violations, including torture, mutilation and extrajudicial executions. They were implicated in attacks, officially attributed to RUF forces, in the months preceding the elections in the area around Mano, Taiama and Njala in Moyamba District. Dozens of civilians were killed in these attacks; survivors suffered gunshot wounds, deliberate amputation of limbs, lacerations from machetes and stabbing by bayonets. In Taiama, a five-year-old boy suffered extensive burns after men in army uniforms set alight plastic placed over him; his mother was killed. Government soldiers attacked unarmed civilians during elections in the towns of Bo and Kenema. On the first day of elections, about 20 civilians were killed in Bo; some 10 soldiers were subsequently captured, mutilated and killed in reprisal by civilians. Many political detainees held at the Central Prison, Pademba Road, Freetown, suspected of involvement in rebel activities, had been tortured and ill-treated while in military custody; they had scars from having their arms tied tightly behind their backs for long periods, beatings and stabbing with bayonets. Several soldiers held in the Pademba Road prison for criminal or military offences had been similarly ill-treated while in military custody. Civilians were also tortured and ill-treated by government soldiers in circumstances unrelated to the conflict. Paul Kamara, editor of For di People newspaper and Chairman of a non-governmental human rights organization, the National League for Human Rights and Democracy, who had accepted a ministerial post in the NPRC under Brigadier Maada Bio, was seriously injured on the first day of elections. He was shot by uniformed soldiers shortly after a curfew was imposed. Although military officials said there would be an official inquiry, no investigation took place. Also in February, 12 elderly people, including two women, were rounded up by soldiers in a village near Tikonko, Bo District, following the killing of a soldier who had attempted to steal palm oil. They were beaten when arrested and later at a military barracks. Two sustained fractures; three others suffered burns. They were subsequently transferred to police custody where all but one was released without charge. After return to civilian rule, efforts were made to improve military discipline and bring to justice soldiers responsible for human rights violations. RUF forces were responsible for gross human rights abuses, including torture and deliberate and arbitrary killings. In March, the RUF leader, Foday Sankoh, while in Côte d'Ivoire, publicly admitted that the RUF had committed atrocities. Civilians were deliberately and arbitrarily killed, tortured and ill-treated in the weeks before elections, but these abuses also continued after the elections. In March, RUF forces opened fire on a group of women from Kenema in the village of Boaboabu. The number of deaths was unclear, but six women were subsequently admitted to hospital with serious gunshot wounds. During attacks by RUF forces on villages in Bo District in May, civilians were beaten, stabbed or cut with machetes. In Sumbuya, for example, several civilians suffered gunshot wounds and many others, including children, were abducted; one was shot in the arm when he refused to accompany rebel forces. Up to 100 civilians were reported to have been killed at Bendu, Pujehun District, in May following an offensive by kamajors in an attempt to free people captured by RUF forces. While some were caught in cross-fire, others were rounded up and forced into a house which was subsequently set alight. Most victims were described as aged over 50, while younger people were abducted. In October, dozens of civilians died in RUF attacks in Tonkolili District. At Massanga, about 35 people, including six hospital patients, were killed and 12 wounded; other patients and hospital staff were abducted. In December, shortly after the peace agreement was signed, about 15 civilians were reportedly killed by RUF forces in Tonkolili District; about 60 others were abducted, some of whom were released shortly afterwards. The fate of civilians abducted by RUF forces remained unknown until their escape or release. Some were killed when they attempted to hide or escape; others were beaten and tied. Girls and women were raped. Many captured civilians were severely malnourished; some died as a result. However, several thousand captured civilians, including many women and children, were freed during the year, often after offensives by kamajors. Some had been held for several years. Over 500 people released in Bo District in October were suffering from severe malnutrition. Reports referred to a 75-year-old woman with a scar on her head where she had been hit for failing to work after collapsing from hunger. Over 100 political detainees, including prisoners of conscience, were released during the year. Most had been held for suspected involvement in rebel activities. In April, President Tejan Kabbah announced the release of 67 detainees, and also the release from house arrest of three members of the government of former President Joseph Saidu Momoh, overthrown by the NPRC in 1992 (see Amnesty International Reports 1995 and 1996). Some 30 other detainees were released in August, including Victor Alimamy Kanu, held since 1994 apparently because of his family association with a member of President Momoh's government. Also released were seven soldiers detained without charge or trial since October 1995 in connection with an alleged coup attempt (see Amnesty International Report 1996); four others had been released in February. Following these releases, about 10 political detainees remained held. They included four alleged members of the RUF, including a woman, arrested in Guinea in November 1995 (see Amnesty International Report 1996). They were transferred from military custody to the Criminal Investigation Department in Freetown in April but were not charged or tried. All those accused of involvement in rebel activities who remained in detention were believed to have been released following the peace agreement in November. Several journalists were detained following newspaper articles critical of President Tejan Kabbah's government. They included Philip Neville and Ibrahim Karim-Sei of the Standard Times, detained for three days without charge in May. Edison Yongai, editor of The Point, was detained for five days in July before being charged with seditious libel, exceeding the legal limit of 72 hours before either being charged or released. He was released on bail and the charges were later dropped. In October, Sheka Tarawallie, editor of The Torchlight, was arraigned before parliament and imprisoned for one month in the Pademba Road prison for contempt of parliament under Section 95 of the Constitution. Six soldiers were arrested in early September, accused of conspiring to overthrow the government; others were subsequently arrested. There were allegations that they had been tortured and ill-treated. At the end of October, Staff Sergeant Lamin Kamara died during interrogation by the security forces, including Nigerian security officials assisting investigations. The authorities claimed that he had died while attempting to escape by jumping from a window. In December, nine soldiers were charged with conspiring to overthrow the government; their trial was adjourned until January 1997. In mid-December, six soldiers and five civilians were arrested. Speculation that the arrests were linked with a further conspiracy to overthrow the government was dismissed by the authorities, but the reasons for the arrests remained unclear. Most of the civilians were subsequently released, but the soldiers remained held without charge at the end of the year. A soldier was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by a military court in Kenema in August. Some 60 people were under sentence of death at the end of the year, including soldiers convicted by military courts allowing no right of appeal to a higher jurisdiction. The death sentence imposed on Lieutenant-Colonel Chernor Deen in January 1995 (see Amnesty International Report 1996) was commuted by the NPRC to life imprisonment. No executions were carried out. Although several thousand Liberian refugees had previously been allowed to enter Sierra Leone, in May about 40 Liberians, mostly women and children, were refused entry to seek asylum, placing them at risk of forcible return to Liberia's capital, Monrovia, where they faced serious human rights abuses as violence escalated in Liberia's internal armed conflict. Amnesty International delegates visited Sierra Leone in April to meet members of the government. They also discussed Amnesty International's concerns with other individuals and organizations in Freetown and Southern and Eastern Provinces. The organization called for strong human rights guarantees to be included in a political settlement to the conflict and also for investigations into human rights abuses in order to bring those responsible to justice. Amnesty International repeatedly called on the RUF leadership to take effective measures to end human rights abuses by its forces. In September, the organization published a report, Sierra Leone: Towards a future founded on human rights, which detailed human rights abuses by both government soldiers and the RUF and made recommendations to the government, the RUF and the international community. In particular, it called for human rights monitoring during negotiation and implementation of the peace agreement. Amnesty International called for the release of political detainees unless they were to be charged and fairly tried. In May, Amnesty International urged the government not to forcibly return those fleeing the Liberian conflict. In November the organization sought clarification concerning the circumstances of the death in custody of a soldier alleged to have died while trying to escape and the continued detention of others arrested for allegedly conspiring to overthrow the government.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.