U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1996 - Sierra Leone

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1997   The country is governed by the 1991 Constitution; provisions suspended by the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) have been reinstituted. In an internal NPRC power struggle, General Julius Maada Bio ousted NPRC chairman (Captain) Valentine Strasser in January 1996. After 4 years of military government, which followed 25 years of one party rule, the Republic of Sierra Leone returned to civilian government after elections in March. With 70 percent of the electorate participating, Alhaji Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was elected President in the first free and fair elections since 1967 and took office in March in a peaceful transfer of power from the NPRC. The judiciary is no longer subject to the intervention of special commissions of inquiry that were established by the NPRC to circumvent the judicial system. On November 30, President Kabbah signed a peace accord with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) which had been attempting to overthrow successive governments since March 1991. Joint Government and RUF committees will oversee disarmament and demobilization of RUF and government forces. The Sierra Leone Military Force (RSLMF) is responsible for external defense. During the civil war, the RSLMF and the police force provided internal security. The RSLMF was supported by Nigerian and Guinean military contingents and by Executive Outcomes, a private South African mercenary firm. The April cease-fire was broken by both sides, but ultimately the RSLMF and civil defense militias (Kamajohs) applied sufficient military pressure on the RUF to lead to successful peace negotiations. The Kamajohs were not under full governmental control. Clashes between the RSLMF and the Kamajohs occurred. Government security forces committed numerous serious human rights abuses. Sierra Leone is a very poor country with alarming health statistics. The average life expectancy for a women is 47 years and 42 years for a man. One child out of four dies before age 5. Before the war, more than 70 percent of the 4.5 million citizens were involved in some aspect of agriculture, mainly subsistence farming. Although the country is rich in minerals, including rutile (titanium dioxide), diamonds, gold, and bauxite, official receipts from legal exports of gold and diamonds have decreased over recent years. Significant portions of the gold and diamonds are smuggled abroad. Government revenues from the mineral sector were far below preconflict levels. Although the Government's human rights record has improved, serious problems remain. The security forces were responsible for extrajudicial killings, beatings, arbitrary arrest and detention, and illegal searches. There were reports that police abused suspects during arrest and interrogation. Prison conditions remain life threatening, and lengthy delays in trials, prolonged pretrial detentions, and violations of due process remain problems. Over half of the 640 persons detained at the Pademba Road prison are awaiting trial. Most abuses, including extrajudicial killings by RSLMF units, were committed chiefly in the area of armed conflict. The Government has harassed, arrested, and detained journalists. Discrimination and violence against women remain widespread, as does violence against children. RUF rebels were responsible for numerous serious human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, and mutilation of civilians.

Respect for Human Rights

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

Both government forces and RUF rebels engaged in these abuses. A cease-fire was in effect, but there were violations by renegade RSLMF soldiers and RUF forces. Armed forces personnel were reportedly involved in political and extrajudicial killings. Renegade soldiers killed civilians while engaged in looting, robbery, and extortion (see Section l.g.). The military court-martialed three soldiers for murder, but none was sentenced to death. There were several attempted political killings. On February 26, the night of the presidential elections, unknown persons attempted to kill Paul Kamara, the former editor of For Di People newspaper, and a critic of the NPRC. Kamara accepted an appointment on January 19 as NPRC Minister for Lands, Housing, and the Environment. Assailants dressed in military fatigues used military weapons in the attack in which Kamara was shot five times in the leg at close range. NPRC delays in seeking appropriate medical treatment hindered his recovery. The Government made no arrests. On February 18, prior to the February election, an attempt was made to kill Dr. James Jonah, the head of the Interim National Election Commission, when a hand grenade was thrown into his residential compound. The Government made no arrests. Three policemen were charged with manslaughter for allegedly beating a suspect to death on July 4 at the central police station. Eight prisoners died in custody due to lack of food and inadequate medical treatment (see Section 1.c.). RUF forces killed civilians while engaged in looting, robbery, and extortion (see Section 1.g.).

b. Disappearance

Since the civilian Government assumed power, there have been no reports of disappearances of captured persons who were suspected to be rebels.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Although the Constitution prohibits torture, the police and armed forces personnel beat suspects during arrest and interrogation. Armed forces personnel engaged in combat operations sometimes physically abused or killed civilians (see Section l.g.). The Government made some effort to investigate the incidents and punish those involved. On February 12, soldiers assaulted presidential candidate Thaimu Bangura in Freetown, preventing him from attending the National Consultative Conference. Soldiers dragged Bangura from his car beat him, and stole his car. The NPRC found and returned his car, but was unable to find Bangura's assailants. Prior to elections, both government soldiers and rebel forces terrorized many villages, cutting off fingers, hands, arms, ears, or lips with machetes. Some had slogans denouncing the elections cut into their backs and chests. While the RUF conducted many attacks in the northern province, responsibility in the southern province was harder to determine. Several victims in villages in Kakunya Chiefdom (Moyamba District) and Lubu Chiefdom (Bo District) from 19-22 February had their hands amputated. Others had "No Elections" cut into their backs or RUF cut into their foreheads. Fingers, upper lips, and ears were amputated. On February 22, one man from Sumbuy, Lubu Chiefdom had "RUF" and "No Elections" cut into his forehead and back. His upper lip and right ear were cut off. Prison conditions at times remain life threatening. The civilian Government worked to improve conditions. While still overcrowded with 5 occupants in a cell built for 1 inmate, the civilian Government reduced numbers of prisoners in the Pademba Road prison by nearly one-half (1,200 to 640). Diet and medical care in the prison was often inadequate. Eight of 70 suspected rebels detained by the NPRC Government in 1995 died of malnutrition and lack of medical supervision. While the new Government provides better supervision of food and medical services for inmates, these programs lack the required monitoring. Detainees sleep on mattresses on the floor, and toilet facilities are rudimentary. Over half of the 640 prisoners are awaiting trial. Male and female inmates are imprisoned separately but together with juveniles. Homosexual rape is common. A nongovernmental group, Prison Watch, has been organized to focus attention on prison conditions. The Government continued to grant the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access to prisoners, including alleged rebels.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

In practice, the Government does not provide adequate safeguards against arbitrary or unjust detentions, nor for their formal review. By law, after an initial 24 hour detention, detainees must have access to legal counsel, families, and medical care, but detainees are seldom provided with these services unless they can afford legal counsel to demand compliance. The Government repealed NPRC decrees under which high-ranking police and military officials could arrest without warrant and detain indefinitely any person suspected of posing a threat to public safety. In practice, soldiers arrest or detain civilians without charge. Arrested foreigners are often released but may not depart the country. The Government provides legal representation for the indigent only in cases of capital offenses. Lack of counsel in other cases frequently leads to wrongful conviction. Many indigent detainees are unaware of their rights and assume, sometimes correctly, that law enforcement or judicial authorities will be paid by the accuser to rule against them. The Society for the Protection of Human Rights provides free legal counsel to some indigent detainees, and some local nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) provide counsel and advice to women concerning their rights. During military operations, a number of rebels were captured by army forces. They were held at brigade headquarters in provincial capitals and at the defense headquarters in Freetown. After initial interrogation, the RUF combatants were released to family members who signed a guarantee to the military that the family was responsible to return the RUF combatant to the military if further discussions were needed. Under the peace accord, RUF combatants will be pardoned from incidents connected with the war. The four high ranking RUF officials arrested by Guinean authorities in 1995 were initially held at army headquarters but at year's end were in custody at the police Criminal Investigation Division (CID) headquarters and expected to be released soon as part of the Government's compliance with the peace accord. In April the authorities released the last three political detainees held by the Government. The Government does not use exile to circumvent the judicial system. However, senior NPRC officials were offered short-term educational programs abroad by international organizations to entice them to leave the political scene following the change of government. There are no restrictions on their return.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

There are constitutional provisions for an independent judiciary. No special commissions of inquiry operate under the new civilian government. A board headed by a justice on loan from the Commonwealth is reviewing actions taken by the previous special commissions of inquiry to determine whether actions by the special commissions were injurious to citizens. There are three judicial systems: Regular courts; local or traditional courts; and courts-martial. The regular court system is based on the British model and consists of a Supreme Court, an intermediate Court of Appeals, a High Court of Magistrates, and Magistrates Courts. There are criminal and civil courts. Decisions by lower courts may be appealed in the high courts. Under previous governments, there have been delays of up to 5 years in bringing some cases to trial. The new Government is attempting to improve working conditions and facilities for the judiciary to improve its performance, but the backlog of cases is of major concern. Judges in the regular court system may serve until they reach the mandatory retirement age of 65, unless their appointment is revoked. There were no known instances of judges being fired or transferred for political reasons. Elected indigenous leaders preside over the local courts and administer tribal law in civil cases. Local courts are often the only legal institution in rural areas, however, local courts in the eastern and southern provinces are still not functioning due to the unsettled conditions in these areas. The courts-martial system, based on British military codes and common law, provides for adjudication of minor offenses by the military unit commander. Soldiers accused of more serious offenses are transferred from field units to Headquarters for trial. Although exact statistics are unavailable, the courts- martial system has convicted military personnel for murder, robbery, and other offenses. This year no military personnel were sentenced to death for capital offenses and no executions were conducted. The senior officer sentenced to death under the NPRC government in 1995 was released by the current Government. The right to minimum due process is not always respected. Authorities sometimes beat detainees or otherwise punish them prior to incarceration or a court hearing. There were no allegations of mutilation of detainees by law enforcement officials this year (see Section 1.c.). In addition the regular court system accepts and sanctions provisions of tribal, traditional, and Islamic law that discriminate against women and minorities.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The Government has repealed the NPRC decrees that provided broad authority to monitor actions or conversations within homes, to prevent a person from acting in a manner deemed prejudicial to public safety, to impose restriction on employment or business, to control association or communication with other persons, and to interfere with correspondence. However, in practice, there were numerous occasions of abusive treatment of citizens by soldiers and police, both within and outside the war zones. These abuses included forced entry into homes, robberies, and assaults. A number of soldiers accused of looting were court-martialed.

g. Use of Excessive Force and Violations of Humanitarian Law in Internal Conflicts.

The internal conflict involves multiple ethnic groups and has resulted in an estimated 15,000 deaths since 1991. Also, an estimated 1.7 million Sierra Leoneans have been displaced internally or are living as refugees in neighboring countries because of the war. Guinean and Nigerian troops continued to assist the Sierra Leonean military. There were many serious violations of humanitarian law in the internal conflict throughout the war zone, including summary executions of prisoners and noncombatants, and torture, rape, mutilation, and killing of civilians. On March 14, the NPRC with the assistance of the Government of Cote D'Ivoire negotiated an unconditional cease-fire with the RUF. The ICRC acted as a faciliator in its role of neutral intermediary. The new civilian Government continued talks with the RUF, and on April 22, the sides agreed to extend the cease-fire and appointed groups to draft peace and disarmament accords. On May 28, the RUF suspended talks and said it would not disarm until Executive Outcomes, a private mercenary organization employed by the government, left Sierra Leone. The cease-fire generally continued to hold, although there were serious security incidents. The Government and the RUF signed a peace accord on November 30. Despite the cease-fire, government security forces and RUF rebels continued to loot villages and ambush truck convoys. RUF forces abducted villagers and vehicle passengers and forced them to carry looted goods to RUF bases. Civilians were maimed, tortured, and murdered in these incidents. On August 29, between Gbaima and Mafombo on the Bo-Taiama highway, a car carrying seven passengers was ambushed, reportedly by RUF combatants. Six persons were shot, and two died. In some cases, the perpetrators could not be identified; however, it is generally believed that undisciplined armed forces personnel, the RUF forces, and thieves committed attacks on civilians. The towns of Kamakwie, Kamallu, and Pendembu in Kambia and Bombail districts in the northern province were attacked. Many abductees were taken to a RUF camp in the Malal hills. The village of Kpatobu, Lubu Chiefdom, was attacked by an armed group in both military uniforms and civilian clothes, armed with sticks, machetes, guns, and rocket propelled grenades. The attackers killed two villagers and mutilated at least four others. There appears to have been little ethnically motivated violence in the hostilities.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The 1991 Constitution provides for freedom of speech and press. However, in practice, authorities arrested, beat, harassed, and detained journalists, and temporarily banned two newspapers for publishing unflattering articles about the Government. There are 28 newspapers covering a wide political spectrum. Many feature sensational, undocumented headlines and articles. In April police arrested the editor of the Concord Times for a story critical of government spending. Released after 10 hours, the editor was later charged with seditious libel; the charges were dropped after the editor admitted inaccuracy in the story. In May police harassed and beat a reporter for Afro Times investigating a story at CID headquarters. In July police arrested the editor of The Point for a story concerning corruption and detained him for 10 hours. In August police detained the editor of Expo Times for 8 hours, and searched his office, for a story concerning the internal conflict between the RUF and government forces. The capital has four radio stations: one is controlled by the Government; one is privately owned; and two are operated by Christian missionaries and broadcast religious programming and foreign news. A privately owned station operates in the provincial capital of Bo. The Government owns and operates the only television station, which is seen only in the capital. The Government respects academic freedom. There were no reports of detention of educators or threats to them for their teaching activities.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The 1991 Constitution provides for freedom of assembly as well as the right to form political, economic, social, and professional organizations. The Government has placed no restrictions on any of these provisions in practice. In September the NPRC decree banning 57 individuals from political activity for 10 years was repealed.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice.

d. Freedom of Movement within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

There are no official restrictions on travel within the country, but numerous military checkpoints make travel difficult. As security increased in the countryside, more travel by road occurred between major cities. However, at various times, vehicles were ambushed or hijacked by armed forces and RUF personnel. A police clearance is required for citizens traveling outside the country. There are no restrictions on emigration or repatriation. Approximately 1.7 million citizens are displaced within the country. An estimated 350,000 Sierra Leoneans are refugees in Guinea and Liberia. The Government cooperates with the Office of the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. The Government has provided first asylum to Liberians during the 1990's. It continues to provide first asylum to some 12,000 Liberians and provided it to an additional 1,176 persons in 1996. Although in May the Government provided food and water to the Victory Reefer, a ship carrying some 100 Liberian refugees which had been searching for a port to disembark its passengers, it did not authorize disembarkation. With the exception of the Victory Reefer, there were no reports of forced return of persons to a country in which they feared persecution. There is no formal process for granting political asylum.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

With the 1991 Constitution restored, citizens have the right to change their government. As a result of great international and domestic pressure, the NPRC allowed presidential elections in February and March. Women were substantially involved in ensuring that elections took place, but they are underrepresented in government. In the new Government, women head 2 of 21 ministries. The recently appointed foreign minister is a woman. Freetown and Bo, the largest cities in the country, have appointed female mayors. A few senior civil service, police, and judicial positions are held by women.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

Active human rights groups include the National League for Human Rights and the Network Movement for Justice. There is a local chapter of Amnesty International in Freetown and human rights groups operate without restriction. Several organizations are providing human rights training. The Government allows the ICRC to visit prisoners and suspected rebels in the Pademba Road Prison and various military barracks. Amnesty International also continues to visit the prison.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution prohibits discrimination against women and provides for protection against discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity, except for the prohibition against citizenship for persons with a non-African father. This provision effectively blocks citizenship and political participation of the Lebanese community, persons of Afro-Lebanese descent, and other persons with non-African fathers.


Violence against women, especially wife beating, is common. Police are unlikely to intervene in domestic disputes except in cases of severe injury or death. Few cases of such violence go to court. Sierra Leone does not recognize domestic violence against women as a societal problem, and the new Government has not given it high-level attention. Rape remains a recognized societal problem. It is punishable by up to 14 years' imprisonment. The Government enforces this law. The Constitution provides for equal rights for women, but in practice women face both legal and societal discrimination. Their rights and status under traditional law vary significantly, depending upon the ethnic group. The Temne and Limba tribes of the north afford greater rights to women to inherit property than does the Mende tribe, which gives preference to male heirs and unmarried daughters. However, in the Temne tribe, women cannot become paramount chiefs. In the south there are a number of female paramount chiefs. Women do not have equal access to education, economic opportunities, health facilities, or social freedoms. In rural areas, women perform much of the subsistence farming, all of the child rearing, and have little opportunity for education. The average educational level for women is markedly below that of men; only 6 percent are literate. At the university level, men predominate. A local NGO, Women Organized for a Morally Enlightened Nation, seeks to educate women throughout the country on their civic and civil rights and responsibilities.


The Government is committed to improving childrens' education and health. The Government's Ministry of Gender and Children's Affairs seeks to work with all ministries to ensure children's concerns are addressed. With a peace agreement, the Government's demobilization program for both rebel and military forces will address the issue of "boy soldiers". Many underage boys were allowed to join military operations early in the war. Rebel forces routinely conscripted young men and women into their ranks when they attacked rural villages. The new Government continued work with NGO's to address the integration of "boy soldiers" back into society. Although statistics are not yet available for the year, infant and child mortality is very high. Statistics are expected to be similar to 1995 with one child in four dying before the age of 5 and one-third of children under the age of 5 being underweight. Instances of ritual murders of boys and girls, as well as adults, associated with animist religious groups in the provinces, continued. Four women have been convicted of manslaughter and are serving prison sentences for their participation. Female genital mutilation (FGM), which is widely condemned by international health experts as damaging to both physical and psychological health, is widely practiced on young women and girls, especially in traditional ethnic groups and among the less-educated. While one independent expert estimates the percentage of females who have undergone this procedure may be as high as 90 percent, local groups believe that this figure is overstated. Membership in female secret societies that practice FGM in their initiation rites has been declining. There has been an active press campaign by secret societies that attempts to counter the well-publicized international condemnation of FGM. On August 17, a 28-year-old woman was abducted by the Secret Bundo Society in Freetown and was subjected to FGM. The woman is bringing criminal charges against the Society and has retained a lawyer, but at the end of the year the case had not gone to trial.

People with Disabilities

Questions of public facility access and discrimination against the disabled have not become public policy issues. The Department of Education has an official whose function is to further mainstream education of students with learning disabilities. No laws mandate accessibility to buildings or provide for other assistance for the disabled. While there does not appear to be outright discrimination against the disabled in housing or education, with the high rate of unemployment, few disabled persons work in offices or factories.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Ethnic loyalty remains an important factor in government, the military, and business. Complaints of corruption and ethnic discrimination in government appointments, contracts, military commissions, and promotions are common. Residents of non-African descent face institutionalized political restrictions. The Constitution restricts citizenship to persons of Negro-African descent following a patrilineal pattern. This constitutional restriction effectively denies citizenship to many long-time residents, notably the Lebanese community.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution provides for the right of association. All workers, including civil servants, have the right to join trade unions of their choice. Unions are independent of the Government. All labor unions have by custom joined the Sierra Leone Labor Congress (SLLC), but membership is voluntary. There is no legal prohibition against SLLC leadership holding political office, and leaders have held both elected and appointed government positions. Under the Trade Union Act, any five persons may form a trade union by applying to the Registrar of Trade Unions, who has statutory powers under the act to approve the creation of trade unions. The Registrar may reject applications for several reasons, including an insufficient number of members, proposed representation in an industry already serviced by an existing union, or incomplete documentation. If the Registrar rejects an application, his decision may be appealed in the ordinary courts, but applicants seldom take such action. Approximately 60 percent of workers in urban areas, including government employees, are unionized, but unions have had little success in organizing workers in the agricultural and mining sectors. Unions have the right to strike without exception, but the Government may require 21 days' notice. The new Government repealed the NPRC decree that prohibited disruption of public tranquility or disruption of supplies, which could be used to prevent a prolonged strike. Although union members may be fired for participating in even a lawful strike, no such incidents were reported. Unions are free to form federations and confederations and to affiliate internationally. The SLLC is a member of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, and there are no restrictions on international travel or contacts of trade unionists.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The legal framework for collective bargaining is the Regulation of Wages and Industrial Relations Act. Collective bargaining must take place in trade group negotiating councils, each of which has an equal number of employer and worker representatives. Most enterprises are covered by collective bargaining agreements on wages and working conditions. The SLLC provides assistance to unions in preparation for negotiations. In case of a deadlock, the Government may intervene. It has not, however, used decrees to prevent strikes. No law prohibits retribution against strikers. Should an employee be fired for union activities, the individual may file a complaint with a labor tribunal and seek reinstatement. Complaints of discrimination against unions are made to an arbitration tribunal. Individual trade unions investigate alleged violations of work conditions to try to ensure that employers take the necessary steps to correct abuses. Labor laws apply to enterprises located in export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Under the Chiefdom's Council Act, compulsory labor may be imposed by individual chiefs, requiring members of their villages to contribute to the improvement of common areas. This practice exists only in rural areas. There is no penalty for noncompliance. The Government does not require compulsory labor. However, an NPRC decree retained by the current Government requires that homeowners, businessmen, and vendors clean and maintain their premises. Failure to comply is punishable by fine or imprisonment. The last Saturday of each month is declared a National Cleaning Day, and there have been reports under the new Government of security forces publicly humiliating citizens to ensure compliance.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The minimum age for employment is officially 18 years, but in practice there is no enforcement because there is no government entity specifically charged with this task. Children routinely assist in family businesses, especially those of vendors and petty traders. In rural areas, children work seasonally on family subsistence farms. Because the adult unemployment rate is high (an estimated 70 percent in some areas), few children are involved in the industrial sector. There have been reports that young children have been hired by foreign employers to work as domestics overseas at extremely low wages and in poor conditions. The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation is responsible for reviewing overseas work applications to see that no one under the age of 14 is employed for this purpose and to enforce certain wage standards.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is no minimum wage. Purchasing power continued to decline, and most workers have to pool incomes with their extended families and engage in subsistence food production to maintain a minimum standard of living. The Government's suggested standard workweek is 38 hours, but most workweeks exceed 38 hours. The Government sets health and safety standards, but the standards are outmoded and often not enforced. The Health and Safety Division of the Department of Labor has inspection and enforcement responsibility, but inadequate funding and transportation limit its effectiveness. Health and safety regulations are included in collective bargaining agreements, but there is no evidence of systematic enforcement of those health and safety standards. Trade unions provide the only protection for workers who file complaints about working conditions. Initially, a union makes a formal complaint about a hazardous work condition. If this is rejected, the union may issue a 21-day strike notice. If workers remove themselves from dangerous work situations without making a formal complaint, they risk being fired.

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