On Friday 23, 2021, Sierra Leone became the 23rd country in the continent of Africa to abolish capital punishment after MPs voted unanimously to end the death penalty (which is largely a remnant of colonial legal codes).
Under the 1991 constitution, criminals could be sentenced to death in Sierra Leone for murder, aggravated robbery, mutiny, and treason, but since 1998, after the controversial execution of 24 soldiers for their alleged involvement in a coup attempt, there has been a de facto moratorium on the death penalty.
Even with the moratorium in place, Sierra Leone served 21 death sentences in 2019 and 39 last year, with 94 people on death row in the country by the end of 2020, according to Amnesty International. The prisoners simply spend their life on death row, “which in effect is a form of torture as [they] have been given a death sentence that will not be carried out because of the moratorium, but [they] constantly have this threat over [them] as there’s nothing in law to stop that sentence being carried out,” says Rhiannon Davis, director of the women’s rights group AdvocAid.
“This government, and previous governments, haven’t chosen to [put convicts to death since 1998],” Davis continues, “but the next government might have taken a different view.”
The decision to abolish capital punishment is a significant step forward for fundamental human rights in Sierra Leone and will be especially beneficial to women and girls found guilty of murdering an abuser.
“Previously, the death penalty was mandatory in Sierra Leone, meaning a judge could not take into account any mitigating circumstances, such as gender-based violence,” she says.
Fortunately, several other countries have also eliminated, or are on their way to eliminating capital punishment. In 2019, the African human rights court ruled that mandatory imposition of the death penalty by Tanzania was “patently unfair,” while in April, Malawi ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional, and Chad abolished it in 2020. Plus, according to Amnesty International, 17 of the countries that still have the death penalty are abolitionist in practice.
Amnesty International researchers also recorded a 36 percent drop in executions compared with 2019, with executions carried out in Botswana, Somalia, and South Sudan. Hopefully, these countries will soon adopt the attitude of the deputy minister of justice, Umaru Napoleon Koroma, who has been deeply involved in the abolition efforts. In Koroma’s words, instead of sentencing people to death row, “life imprisonment with the possibility of them reforming is the way to go.”