Political Rights: 4
Civil Liberties: 3
Status: Partly Free
Population: 5,200,000
GNI/Capita: $140
Life Expectancy: 35
Religious Groups: Muslim (60 percent), Indigenous beliefs (30 percent), Christian (10 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Temne (30 percent), Mende (30 percent), other tribes (30 percent), Creole (10 percent)
Capital: Freetown


The trials of indicted war crimes suspects in Sierra Leone's decade-long civil war got underway in the Special Court for Sierra Leone in 2004. Meanwhile, UN troops ceded more control of the country to Sierra Leonean forces as part of a phased withdrawal of international peacekeepers.

Founded by Britain in 1787 as a haven for liberated slaves, Sierra Leone became independent in 1961. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) launched a guerrilla campaign from neighboring Liberia in 1991 to end 23 years of increasingly corrupt one-party rule by President Joseph Momoh. Power fell into the lap of Captain Valentine Strasser in 1992, when he and other junior officers attempted to confront Momoh about poor pay and working conditions at the front. Momoh fled the country. The Strasser regime hired South African soldiers from the security company Executive Outcomes to help win back key diamond-rich areas. In January 1996, Brigadier Julius Maada-Bio quietly deposed Strasser. Elections proceeded despite military and rebel intimidation, and voters elected Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, a former UN diplomat, as president.

In 1997, Major Johnny Paul Koroma toppled the Kabbah government, established the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, and invited the RUF to join the junta. Nigerian-led West African troops, backed by logistical and intelligence support from the British company Sandline, restored Kabbah to power in February 1998, but the country continued to be racked by war. A peace agreement in July 1999 led to the beginning of disarmament, but the process stopped in May 2000 with a return to hostilities and the taking of about 500 peacekeepers as hostages. British troops flew in to help, and disarmament resumed in May 2001.

In the May 2002 presidential poll, in which eight candidates competed, Kabbah was reelected with 70 percent of the vote, compared with 22 percent for Ernest Koroma of the All People's Congress (APC), who comes from the same region as Johnny Paul Koroma. The RUF candidate, Alimamy Pallo Bangura, lagged with barely 2 percent of the vote. Kabbah's Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) dominated parliamentary elections the same month, winning 83 of 112 available seats, followed by the APC with 27; Koroma's party won 2 seats.

Although Sierra Leone's war has ended, Kabbah, who was reelected to the presidency in 2002, still faces daunting problems, many of which contributed to causing the conflict. Entrenched corruption, a culture of impunity, rampant poverty, and unequal distribution of the country's diamond wealth must be adequately addressed if the country is to enjoy lasting peace.

The Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission, modeled on South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, warned in October 2004 that poverty and corruption remained rampant. The commission, which includes members from Canada, South Africa, The Gambia, and Sierra Leone, said women, as well as men between the ages of 18 and 35, needed to participate more fully in society and public office.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone in 2004 began holding trials of those deemed primarily responsible for war crimes and human rights abuses committed during the civil war. Witnesses recounted ghastly stories about atrocities that were committed across the countryside. The court has indicted 13 people, including Charles Taylor, who stepped down as president of Liberia in August 2003 and accepted Nigeria's offer of asylum. Taylor was accused of backing the former rebel RUF with weapons in exchange for diamonds. Interpol has issued a warrant for his arrest but says it is up to individual governments to apprehend Taylor; the Liberian government has not pursued him.

The departure of Taylor and the growing prospect for peace in Liberia bodes well for lasting peace in Sierra Leone. However, insecurity along the borders of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Cote d'Ivoire is perilous for the entire region. A phased withdrawal of the 17,300-strong UN Mission in Sierra Leone, the world's largest peacekeeping mission, is scheduled to be completed in June 2005.

Sierra Leone has vast diamond resources, but smuggling and war have turned it into one of the world's poorest countries. A ban on rough-diamond imports from Sierra Leone does not include diamonds that carry proven certificates of origin from the government.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens of Sierra Leone can change their government democratically. Presidential and legislative elections in February and March 1996 were imperfect, but were considered legitimate. Politicians, former combatants, and civil society representatives joined together in a conference in 2001 and approved a new electoral system for polls scheduled for the following year. Despite some logistical problems, the May 2002 presidential and parliamentary elections were considered the country's fairest since independence. President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and his SLPP enjoyed the advantage of incumbency and state resources for both elections. Sierra Leone has a 124-seat unicameral parliament of which 112 seats are chosen by popular vote and 12 seats are filled by paramount chiefs chosen in separate elections. Parliamentary elections are held every five years. The president is elected by popular vote every five years and serves as both chief of state and head of government. Local elections were held in May 2004; there were complaints of intimidation and some voting irregularities.

Dozens of political parties have been formed, but many revolve around a specific personality and have little following. The major political parties include the SLPP, the APC, and the Peace and Liberation Party.

An anti-corruption commission was established by the National Assembly in 2000. It has already brought several cases to court. Sierra Leone was ranked 114 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index. Sierra Leoneans have expressed increasing frustration over what they see as a continuation of corrupt, elitist politics and neglect of the country's impoverished population.

Freedom of speech and of the press is guaranteed, but the government at times restricts these rights. Criminal libel laws are used occasionally to jail journalists. Several government and private radio and television stations broadcast, and newspapers openly criticize the government and armed factions. Dozens of newspapers are printed in Freetown, but most are of poor quality and often carry sensational or undocumented stories. Internet access is not impeded.

International press freedom groups harshly criticized the government in 2004 following the imprisonment of a well-known Sierra Leonean journalist. Paul Kamara, editor and publisher of the independent newspaper For Di People, was sentenced in October to two years in prison because of articles that linked Kabbah to fraudulent activities in 1967, when he helped oversee the Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board. The court found Kamara guilty on two counts of "seditious libel" under the 1965 Public Order Act. The judge also recommended a six-month ban on For Di People. The Independent Media Commission was to rule on the recommendation.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed and respected in practice. Academic freedom is guaranteed.

The rights of freedom of assembly and association are guaranteed, and these rights are generally respected. Several national and international nongovernmental organizations and civic groups, including human rights groups, operate openly and freely. Workers have the right to join independent trade unions of their choice. About 60 percent of workers in urban areas, including government employees, are unionized. There is a legal framework for collective bargaining.

The judiciary is active, but corruption and a lack of resources are impediments. Despite these obstacles, the judiciary has demonstrated independence, and a number of trials have been free and fair. Local courts resumed sitting in all districts of the country in 2003. There are often lengthy pretrial detentions in harsh conditions. Eight judges – from Sierra Leone, Canada, Austria, The Gambia, the United Kingdom, and Nigeria – were appointed to sit on the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone. The court made history as the first international war crimes tribunal to sit UN-appointed judges alongside local judges at a court in the country where the atrocities took place. Its goal was to deliver justice cheaper and faster than tribunals for Rwanda and Bosnia. Funding has been a key source of frustration. The police force is widely seen as corrupt and incompetent. Arbitrary arrest without charge is common. Prison conditions are harsh and sometimes life threatening.

Sierra Leone once had one of Africa's worst human rights records. Abduction, maiming, rape, forced conscription, and extrajudicial killing were commonplace. Although security has improved considerably, lack of equipment for security forces and poor infrastructure could hinder longer-term efforts to keep a lid on unrest in Sierra Leone, especially if demobilized combatants lack opportunities for employment. In February, a program to disarm and rehabilitate more than 70,000 fighters was completed.

Despite constitutionally guaranteed equal rights, women face extensive legal and de facto discrimination, as well as limited access to education and formal (business) sector jobs. Married women have fewer property rights than men, especially in rural areas, where customary law prevails. Abuse of women, including rape, sexual assault, and sexual slavery, were rampant during the war. Female genital mutilation is widespread and no law prohibits it.

Trend Arrow

Sierra Leone received an upward trend arrow due to continued efforts to bring to justice those responsible for atrocities committed during the civil war.

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