Covering events from January - December 2004

The human rights situation continued to improve with increased security and stability. Trials began before the Special Court for Sierra Leone but the government of Nigeria continued to refuse to surrender former Liberian President Charles Taylor to the court. Publication of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report was expected to contribute towards reconciliation and prevention of human rights violations. The trial of some 90 former combatants charged with murder and other offences in 2002 was stalled, but 18 others associated with the former armed opposition were released after prolonged detention without charge or trial. Effective administration of justice was seriously compromised by deficiencies in the national justice system.

Background information

Relative security allowed further advances of the peace process following the 10-year internal armed conflict. Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of some 70,000 former combatants, including almost 7,000 children, were officially declared complete in February. Women associated with fighting forces, however, had not been adequately integrated into the process. The economic situation remained precarious and high unemployment hampered reintegration of former combatants, threatening renewed insecurity.

Restoration of local government following elections in May reinforced state authority. Government control of and revenue from diamond mining increased. However, the armed forces and police still lacked capacity to assume full responsibility for security. The UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), the International Military Advisory and Training Team and the Commonwealth police development team continued to provide training and support. The UN Security Council decided that a reduced UNAMSIL presence would remain in 2005 to monitor security and provide support to the army and police in border and diamond-producing areas. Illegal transfers of arms and ammunition into neighbouring Liberia were reported. UNAMSIL and UN peacekeeping operations in Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire sought to strengthen cooperation on issues such as cross-border movements of combatants, arms and ammunition, and disarmament and demobilization.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone

Trials began before the Special Court for Sierra Leone of some of those indicted for bearing the greatest responsibility for crimes against humanity, war crimes and other serious violations of international law committed after 30 November 1996. Charges included murder, mutilation, rape and other forms of sexual violence, sexual slavery, conscription of children to fight, abductions and forced labour.

In March the Appeals Chamber ruled that the general amnesty provided by the 1999 Lomé peace agreement and subsequently enacted in Sierra Leonean law did not apply to the Special Court, other international or foreign courts, and therefore did not prevent prosecution by such courts of crimes under international law. The general amnesty, however, continued to prevent prosecutions for such crimes in Sierra Leone's courts.

Nine of the 11 people indicted in 2003 remained in the Special Court's custody. The joint trial of three members of the pro-government Civil Defence Forces began in June, and that of three members of the former armed opposition Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in July. The trial of three members of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), which seized power in a 1997 coup and subsequently allied itself to the RUF, had yet to start. Reports of the death of former AFRC leader Johnny Paul Koroma, also indicted in 2003 but still at large, were not confirmed. The appointment of judges to a second trial chamber was expected to accelerate the pace of trials.

Charles Taylor

In May the Appeals Chamber ruled that Charles Taylor, indicted for having actively supported the RUF and AFRC, had no immunity from prosecution for crimes against humanity and war crimes by virtue of his status as a head of state. He had relinquished power and left Liberia for Nigeria in August 2003, shortly before a peace agreement was signed. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo argued that he was acting in the interests of peace in Liberia.

In September, AI applied to the Nigerian Federal High Court for leave to submit an amicus curiae brief demonstrating that Nigeria's granting of refugee status to Charles Taylor violated its obligations under international law, including the UN and Africa Union conventions on refugees. Proceedings were continuing at the end of 2004 (see Nigeria entry).

Truth and Reconciliation Commission

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission published its long-awaited report in October. It had been established in 2000 to create an impartial historical record of human rights abuses committed during the conflict, provide a forum for victims and perpetrators to recount their experiences, and facilitate reconciliation. Among issues covered in the report were the brutal nature of the conflict, the role of external actors, and factors such as mineral resources which had fuelled the conflict. Prominent among its recommendations were: defending the right to life, including through abolition of the death penalty; protecting human rights, including those of women and children; strengthening democracy, the rule of law and good governance; and providing reparations, including to people who had suffered sexual violence or amputation of limbs.

Strengthening institutions to protect human rights

Despite some progress, including appointment of additional High Court judges, effective administration of justice remained severely compromised by understaffed and poorly equipped courts, and a huge backlog of cases. Lack of access to justice was aggravated by poverty and illiteracy.

Responding to the acute shortage of judicial officials, the UN Development Programme and the Chief Justice's office elaborated plans to recruit additional magistrates. In December the UK committed £25 million (about US$50 million) to support judicial and legal reform.

Reactivated in 2003, the Law Reform Commission reviewed existing laws, including those relating to violence against women, to enhance conformity with international standards such as the UN Women's Convention. Despite an improved rate of prosecutions and convictions for sexual and gender-based violence and related offences against women and children, many cases were not reported to the police or were withdrawn before the start of criminal proceedings.

Female genital mutilation remained widespread and community-based initiatives to combat the practice were hampered by lack of resources.

Legislation to establish the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone, anticipated in the

Lomé peace agreement, was passed by Parliament in July, after considerable delay.

Death sentences for treason

In late December, the High Court in the capital, Freetown, passed death sentences on nine former members of the RUF and AFRC and one civilian after convicting them of treason. Another defendant was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment and four were acquitted. The charges related to an armed attack in January 2003 on the armoury at Wellington barracks, on the outskirts of Freetown, in an apparent attempt to overthrow the government. Johnny Paul Koroma was said to be implicated but had evaded arrest.

These death sentences came shortly after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had recommended the repeal without delay of legislation authorizing the death penalty, a moratorium on executions pending abolition, and commutation by President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah of pending death sentences. None of these recommendations had yet been implemented. Fifteen other prisoners were reported to be under sentence of death.

Detention and trial of former combatants

The High Court trial of some 90 former RUF members and renegade soldiers known as the "West Side Boys" was repeatedly adjourned. In July they rioted in protest at the Maximum Security Prison, Pademba Road, in Freetown. Arrested in 2000 but not charged with murder and other offences until 2002, they remained without legal representation.

Of a group of 21 military personnel detained without charge or trial in Pademba Road prison since 2000, 18 were released without charge: two in May and another 16 in August. Three had died in 2003, one in March and two in December, apparently as a result of medical neglect.

Deaths in custody

At least two other prisoners died in Pademba Road prison in 2004, highlighting the life-threatening conditions which continued in prisons and police cells despite regular monitoring and some improvements.

Ibrahim Bah, aged 16, died in February after being severely beaten by staff at the Kingtom Remand Home for juvenile offenders in Freetown following an escape attempt. Two other boys required hospital treatment. Despite prompt investigation by the police, assisted by UNAMSIL, the suspected perpetrators remained at large.

Immediate measures were taken to protect children at the home and the incident prompted a review of the juvenile justice system by UNAMSIL and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), in cooperation with government authorities, aimed at reforms to include revised legislation, training and directives for the police and judiciary.

Freedom of expression

Paul Kamara, editor of the newspaper For di People, was convicted of seditious libel and sentenced to two concurrent two-year prison terms in October. In October 2003 the paper had claimed that a commission of inquiry in 1967 had "convicted" President Kabbah, then a ministerial official, of fraud. AI's protests against Paul Kamara's imprisonment highlighted the disproportionate sentence and undermining of the right to freedom of expression.

Refugees and internally displaced people

Repatriation of Sierra Leonean refugees from Guinea and Liberia had been completed by July and internally displaced people had returned to their areas of origin. With improved security in Liberia, from October the UN High Commissioner for Refugees began a programme of voluntary repatriation for some 66,000 Liberian refugees in Sierra Leone.

Some 340 former Liberian combatants were interned at Mape, Port Loko District. Despite intervention by national agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross, conditions remained poor and at least two internees were reported to have died as a result. Plans were made for their repatriation and inclusion in Liberia's disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programme.

UN Mission in Sierra Leone

The UNAMSIL human rights section continued to monitor police stations, prisons, the judicial system and national institutions, and to promote women's human rights through training and awareness-raising programmes. It also trained peacekeeping troops, judicial and law enforcement officials, human rights and other civil society groups in international human rights and humanitarian law.

In September the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that allegations of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation by UNAMSIL peacekeeping forces persisted. The outcome of investigations by UNAMSIL into the alleged assault and killing of a 19-year-old woman by peacekeeping forces in April had not been made public by the end of 2004.

AI country visits

AI delegates visited Sierra Leone in March and July, met officials of the government and the Special Court for Sierra Leone and non-governmental organizations, and observed trials before the Special Court.

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