Covering events from January - December 2002

Head of state and government: Ahmad Tejan Kabbah
Death penalty: retentionist
International Criminal Court: ratified

There was a significant improvement in the human rights situation as a decade of internal armed conflict was officially declared ended in January. Progress was made towards addressing impunity for past human rights abuses committed by both government and armed opposition forces during the conflict. Developing national capacity, including strengthening the justice system, to promote and protect human rights remained a priority. The former leader of the armed opposition, together with some 100 others, was brought to trial on charges of murder and other offences but hearings were repeatedly postponed and international standards of fair trial were not met. Some 20 others associated with the former armed opposition were held without charge or trial. While large numbers of Sierra Leonean refugees and internally displaced people returned home, conflict in neighbouring Liberia resulted in an influx of Liberian refugees.


The internal armed conflict which began in 1991 was officially declared over in January 2002 with completed demobilization and disarmament of more than 55,000 combatants, including almost 7,000 children, from the armed opposition – the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and renegade soldiers of the Sierra Leone Army – and the government-allied Civil Defence Forces. Inadequate funds, however, hampered their reintegration into society. The national army and police – restructured, trained and equipped by the international community – gradually resumed responsibility for security and law enforcement in areas previously affected by conflict. Support from the UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), however, remained necessary, in particular in border areas. Security also remained a concern in diamond-producing areas.

Presidential and parliamentary elections in May were generally judged free and fair. President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah obtained 70 per cent of votes and was re-elected for a further five-year term. His party, the Sierra Leone People's Party, also gained a large majority in parliament. Many members of the security forces, however, voted for Johnny Paul Kamara, former leader of the AFRC which came to power following a military coup in 1997. The RUF, which had transformed into a political party, contested the elections but fared poorly.

Continuing armed conflict in neighbouring Liberia threatened to undermine Sierra Leone's newly found peace. Former combatants were reported to have been recruited by Liberian government and armed opposition forces. Armed groups from Liberia attacked villages near the border and in some cases abducted civilians. The heads of state of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the Mano River Union countries, met in Morocco in February in order to address sources of instability and build confidence. Efforts were also made by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to restore peace and stability in the region.


There was progress in addressing impunity for gross human rights abuses committed during the conflict, notably in the establishment of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which the UN Security Council decided in 2000 to set up to try those most responsible for crimes against humanity, war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was provided for by the 1999 Lomé peace agreement. The Special Court will, however, only look at crimes committed after 30 November 1996. Efforts were made to clarify the relationship between the Special Court and the TRC to ensure effective cooperation. Investigations into past abuses began, including examination of mass graves and gathering testimonies from victims.

The UN and the government signed an agreement in January on the establishment of the Special Court and implementing legislation was passed in March. A Registrar, Prosecutor and Deputy Prosecutor were appointed in May, and in December eight judges – both international and Sierra Leonean – for trial and appeals chambers were sworn in. The Special Court was expected to begin hearings in mid-2003. No names of those to be indicted by the court had been made public by the end of the year. In a meeting with the Prosecutor in July, AI stressed the importance of full independence to prosecute those most responsible for crimes within the Court's jurisdiction, regardless of political affiliation during or since the conflict.

Commissioners for the TRC – again both international and Sierra Leonean – were appointed in May. Although inaugurated in July, progress was hindered by inadequate funds from the international community. The TRC was expected to operate for 15 months with a possible extension of a further six months.

The general amnesty for all acts undertaken in pursuit of the conflict, which was provided by the Lomé peace agreement and subsequently passed into law, remained a serious impediment to addressing impunity comprehensively, although it was not a bar to prosecution by the Special Court.

Trial of Foday Sankoh and others
In March, emergency regulations allowing indefinite detention without charge or trial, under which over 120 members of the RUF and other armed opposition forces had been detained, were lifted. RUF leader Foday Sankoh and some 50 others were subsequently charged with conspiracy to murder, murder and shooting with intent to kill in connection with an incident in May 2000 when about 20 people were killed and dozens injured after RUF members fired on civilians protesting outside Foday Sankoh's Freetown residence. The Attorney General and Minister of Justice said that these charges would not prejudice any case which the Special Court might subsequently bring. At least another 13 RUF members were subsequently charged with similar offences. Thirty-eight members of the "West Side Boys", a group of renegade soldiers, were also charged with conspiracy to murder, murder and aggravated robbery. If convicted, the defendants could face the death penalty.

The trial before the High Court was repeatedly postponed, in some cases because of Foday Sankoh's ill health, and there was little progress by the end of the year. Defendants had no access to lawyers at any stage of the legal proceedings, in violation of international fair trial standards. The fact that the defendants were charged with capital offences exacerbated concerns about lack of legal representation. They were also denied visits from their families.
Disquiet was expressed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, AI and others that, while the maximum sentence which can be imposed by the Special Court is life imprisonment, the national courts may impose the death penalty.

Concerns remained about poor conditions, including inadequate medical care, for prisoners in the Central Prison, Pademba Road, in Freetown and other places of detention. In August one of the defendants died; his death was officially described as resulting from "psychosis". Although referred to the police for investigation, no clarification of the exact circumstances of the death emerged.

Detention without charge or trial

Despite the lifting of emergency regulations, some 20 detainees, all believed to be military personnel, remained held without charge or trial in the Central Prison, Pademba Road, at the end of the year. There was no legal basis for their continued detention.

Strengthening national institutions

Opportunities arose to address serious deficiencies in the justice system which had been aggravated by the conflict. While the Special Court focused on past human rights abuses and would only try a limited number of cases, AI considered it crucial that it contributed to the long-term strengthening of the national justice system, including personnel, training and infrastructure. A joint World Bank and United Kingdom (UK) Department for International Development team visited Sierra Leone in June and July to undertake a preliminary review of the justice sector.

Although some magistrates' courts were reopened outside the capital, Freetown, only five of 14 in the country were functioning, and these with limited capacity. Lack of trained legal personnel and the absence of legal aid caused a large backlog of cases and prolonged pre-trial detention. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights assisted a local group to provide legal aid.

No progress was made in the establishment of a National Human Rights Commission, provided for by the Lomé peace agreement. The Special Adviser to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on national institutions wrote to the Vice-President, formerly Attorney General and Minister of Justice, to propose possible options for its speedy establishment.

Refugees and internally displaced people

Over 100,000 Sierra Leonean refugees returned home, mostly from Guinea and Liberia. Many were assisted by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); others returned on their own. Some 124,000 internally displaced people were also resettled during the year. As conflict in Liberia escalated, however, there was a large influx of Liberian refugees; an additional 37,000 had arrived by November. Efforts by UNHCR to facilitate repatriation of Sierra Leonean refugees and protect the large number of Liberian refugees were, however, hampered by lack of funds.

In February a report by UNHCR and Save the Children-UK revealed the risks of sexual abuse and exploitation faced by refugee and internally displaced children in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone from employees of national and international non-governmental organizations, UNHCR and other UN bodies, security forces and other refugees and internally displaced people. Although the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services carried out an investigation into these allegations and published a report in October, AI was concerned that its terms of reference were too limited and therefore unlikely to yield findings which reflected the true situation.

UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL)

In September the UN Security Council agreed to a reduction in the military component of UNAMSIL, with withdrawal to be largely completed by December 2004, provided that there was sufficient investment in developing the capacity of the army and police and taking into account the conflict in Liberia. The UNAMSIL military force of 17,500 had been reduced by 600 by the end of 2002.

The human rights component of the UNAMSIL human rights section continued to monitor the human rights situation and provide technical cooperation. It provided support to the Special Court and TRC and human rights training for UNAMSIL personnel, including peace-keeping troops, as well as Sierra Leonean police and army personnel. Two regional offices were opened early in the year, in Port Loko and Koidu, adding to those in Kenema and Makeni, thereby increasing capacity to monitor the human rights situation throughout the country.

Allegations of violations by UNAMSIL peace-keeping troops
In January, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and CARITAS-Makeni, a Catholic non-governmental organization, reported several cases of sexual misconduct against children by UNAMSIL peace-keeping forces. These allegations were investigated by UNAMSIL together with child protection agencies and preventive measures were put in place to protect children and women.

In July, two people died from bullet wounds and another three were injured after UNAMSIL peace-keeping forces fired shots to quell rioting in Freetown which broke out after the killing of a local trader. An investigation by UNAMSIL concluded that firing had not been directed at the crowd and that there was no conclusive evidence as to how individuals were killed or injured.

Military assistance and the diamond trade

Although the conflict was officially ended, measures continued to prevent trade in diamonds being used to finance military assistance to armed groups. The UN Security Council extended a ban on direct and indirect imports of rough diamonds from Sierra Leone, exempting those exported under the government's Certificate of Origin scheme. Controls were still needed, however, to track diamonds from the point of mining, and extension of government authority to diamond-producing areas remained crucial.

The Security Council also maintained a ban on arms transfers and rough diamond exports from Liberia, which had supported the RUF. Progress was made by governments and the international diamond industry towards the establishment of an international certification scheme. The scheme was launched in November and was expected to come into effect in January 2003.

AI country visits

AI delegates visited Sierra Leone in April and May to carry out research on the national justice system. They met senior government officials and members of UNAMSIL.

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.