Police brutality must be punished – says Amnesty International

20 September, 2012

The killing of a young woman by police in the northern town of Bumbuna in Sierra Leone early this year, had attracted widespread condemnation and anger. Several people were injured and properties destroyed.

She and hundreds of local people had joined local mining workers in protest against poor working conditions and low pay at the country’s largest iron ore mining company – African Minerals Ltd.

After several days of angry protest by the local community and mine workers, heavily armed riot police opened fire at the protesters – killing the young woman.

The violence was brought under control when president Koroma visited the community. He promised to hold an independent investigation into the killing and ensure that the demands of the protesting mine workers were met.

Several reports by civil rights groups in the country and the media have criticised the government for its poor handling of mining contracts, signed with African Minerals and others.

Although thousands of jobs have been created in mining communities after the rehabilitation of the country’s mineral industry in 2009, critics say that the government is failing to ensure that royalties, corporation taxes and licenses are beneficial to the country.

The government they say is earning very little, other than one-off cash lump sum payments from the companies, which is helping it balance its budget.

This criticism is said to have been echoed last Friday by the International Monetary Fund, during its discussions with government ministers, reviewing the country’s economic performance.

The independent report commissioned by the government to investigate the killing of an unarmed protesting woman at the mines is yet to be published.

Amnesty International is meanwhile calling on the government to instigate criminal proceedings against the police, for the unlawful killing of the young woman.

“This irresponsible and abusive action by the Sierra Leonean police demonstrates a terrifying disregard for the rights, and lives, of the people they are duty bound to protect,” said Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, Amnesty International’s Sierra Leone researcher.

“A peaceful demonstration by mine workers ended in violence after police use arbitrary and excessive force. This failure of professional policing raises significant questions about the police’s ability to maintain order and respect human rights in what could prove to be tense elections in the coming months.”

This is Amnesty’s statement issued yesterday:

While Amnesty International welcomes the public inquiry into the events of April 16 to 18 in Bumbuna, which is being conducted by Sierra Leone’s National Human Rights Commission, it calls on the government to initiate a criminal investigation to ensure those found responsible – including those with command responsibility – are held to account.

On 16 April 2012 employees at the AML mine in Bumbuna called a public demonstration and gathered outside the courthouse – a common gathering place for the community.

Local police confirmed to Amnesty International that the demonstration was peaceful, but nonetheless they called in reinforcements from several other cities, including Freetown.

At around 1pm on 17 April the police entered the main marketplace in Bumbuna – approximately quarter of a mile away from the protesting mine employees – and fired tear gas and live ammunition into the air.

One woman trader told Amnesty International:

“They were just roaming all over the town shooting tear gas and bullets through the day and anywhere they saw smoke they went there and they even shot at pots where people were preparing food and they ate our own food and placed me at gun point…We are not African Mineral workers, just market women.”

The police claim they were chasing down men who were trying to set fire to a fuel depot and who had fled to the market place.

However, Amnesty International was unable to find any evidence to corroborate this and eye witnesses said the police opened fire without provocation when there was no risk to their lives or the lives of others.

On the evening of 17 April, a local radio broadcaster was reporting on the events and hosting a phone in where people could report on the violence, and express their opinions on air.

In the early morning of 18 April, police arrived at the station wanting to question the journalist, claiming he was inciting violence.

It appears that the police used live ammunition against people near the radio station who had gathered to prevent what they thought was the arrest of the journalist. One young man showed Amnesty International a bullet wound in his lower leg.

Later the same morning, the police fired live ammunition directly into a crowd of demonstrators marching towards the town police station to protest the police’s behaviour.

According to eye witnesses the police did not give any warning before opening fire.
One woman, Musu Conteh, died after receiving a bullet wound to the right side of her chest.

A health worker who treated the injured told Amnesty International that 11 people sustained injuries, including a child who inhaled a chemical agent. At least six people were treated for gunshot wounds.

“We have not been able to find, and the police were not able to produce, any evidence that the protesters were armed,” said Sherman-Nikolaus.

“While allegations made by the police that some protesters threw stones could be true, it is inconceivable that the use of live ammunition can be justified in this instance.”

Amnesty International’s understanding of the events in Bumbuna raises concerns about the relationship between the Sierra Leone police and the mining company AML, which has its headquarters in the UK.

Amnesty International asked AML to comment on their relationship with the police and the events at Bumbuna.

The company confirmed that it provides some material assistance to the police including transport, infrastructure, sustenance and financial contributions; however, it did not disclose information documenting its relationship with the Sierra Leone police, who appear to provide security for the company’s mining operations.

The fact that AML paid compensation to the women traders for the damage done when police ransacked the market place, raises serious questions about AML’s role in the events in Bumbuna town.

The company said that the compensation was paid to the market women on compassionate grounds after a request by government officials and local community, including the paramount chief.

“The absence of a freedom of information law in Sierra Leone means that documents detailing government agreements with multinational corporations are not available to the public,” said Sherman-Nikolaus.

Amnesty International calls on the government to pass the Freedom of Information Bill that is currently pending to ensure transparency between government and business transactions.

 

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