Death penalty will not reform disenfranchised youths in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 25 September 2016


As the government of Sierra Leone prepares to resume the death penalty, despite recent commitment to abide by United Nations’ and other global human rights conventions, questions are being asked about the rationale for such retrograde policy decision.

If president Koroma was to be credited for any aspect of his two terms in office, it would have been his decision to stand by the moratorium on the death penalty, which has been in force since 1998.

But with the government now poised to start its policy of state killing in retaliation to the significant rise in violent crimes in the country – especially murder, critics say that president Koroma and his ruling APC party would be putting the final nail on their poor record in office.

And with general and presidential elections taking place in less than two years, there are suspicions that the gallows is now being prepared for the cold blooded execution of political opponents, reminiscent of the 1970s and 1980s.

But some government officials have told the Sierra Leone Telegraph that with the rise in murder cases in the country, the government has no choice but to end the moratorium on the death penalty as a deterrent.

president-koroma-speaks-at-un-2016As one minister puts it to the Sierra Leone Telegraph: “The President and the entire Cabinet are firmly behind Palo Conteh, who enjoys the support of the entire Cabinet, and with the mandate to make those statements about cleaning out the gallows”. (Photo: President Koroma speaking to an almost empty UN General Assembly last week. Was he being snubbed by world leaders for bringing back the death penalty?)

Two weeks ago, a court in Freetown passed the death sentence by hanging, after a guilty verdict was reached on two young men convicted of murdering a popular musician – Sydney David Buckle – aka DJ Cleff.

This verdict followed two other murder convictions recorded in the last few months. And according to the minister of justice and attorney general – Joseph Kamara, an average of 25 murders is recorded in Sierra Leone every month.

This grim statistics, supporters of the death sentence say, merit the government’s decision to end the moratorium on death penalty.

But the decision to bring back hanging will be in violation of the UN Convention on Human Rights, signed by the government of Sierra Leone. So how will the Koroma government square this with the international community, upon whom the country depends for over 50% of its revenue?

According to the 2015 Global Report on Death Sentence and Execution, there was a 54% rise in state executions across the world, with 1,634 people executed in 2015, in comparison with 573 executions in 2014.

Critics say that Sierra Leone will not only once again be joining the ignoble league of state executioners – Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, China, Saudi Arabia, and the USA, but will be going back on the promise delivered by the country’s former attorney general Frank Kargbo at the United Nations Human Rights Council Committee on Torture in Geneva in May, 2014.

This is what Frank Kargbo told the UN:

“Mr. Chairman, Excellences Distinguished members of the Committee, Rapporteurs, human rights defenders, ladies and gentlemen, I bring you greetings from The President, His Excellency Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma, the Government and  people of Sierra Leone.

“Sierra Leone stands on its submitted report for this review and says that the following work has been done (post the submission) towards proper implementation and the realization by our citizens of the rights guaranteed under the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment: That the prohibition against the infliction of torture on any of our citizens or persons living within our borders remains entrenched provisions in the Constitution of Sierra Leone, Act No.6 of 1991.[1]

“The Constitution in Chapters II (Fundamental Principles of State Policy) and Chapter III (The Recognition and Protection of Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms of the Individual) contains all the rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as rights guaranteed in all major United Nations Conventions, regional and sub-regional human rights systems and international humanitarian law treaties, including the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols.

“Government in July 2013 set up an 80-person Constitutional Review Committee with a mandate to overhaul the constitution and strengthen our international human rights commitments to reflect our current reality as a fully-fledged compliant member of the international community.

“In our continued bid to improve conditions for persons under detention in our prisons and other institutions, the Government recently laid before Parliament for enactment, the Correctional Services Bill.

“This proposed law incorporates international standards and eliminates old punishments, including corporal punishment, prolonged periods of remand detention, hard labor, solitary confinement, among others. Permit me to note that some of these punishments are in practice obsolete and not in use in Sierra Leone.

“Government however recognizes the imperative to expunge them from our law books and is committed to doing so through this and other laws.”

That was Sierra Leone’s attorney general speaking in May 2014, at the United Nations Human Rights Council Committee on Torture in Geneva.

On December 18, 2014, a resolution was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. This was adopted also by the Koroma government.

Pademba Road Prison3As the government of Sierra Leone prepares the gallows to bring back death by hanging, it is worth noting that two thirds of countries in the world have abolished the death penalty in either law or practice; and there is an increasing trend towards the complete abolition of capital punishment across the world.

More than two thirds of nations – over 150 of the 193 members of the UN according to the last report by the Secretary General, have now rejected the death penalty, or do not carry out executions.

While those affected by serious violence in Sierra Leone may quite understandably like to see the death penalty resumed in retaliation for the loss of their loved ones, it must be noted that this form of punishment has never succeeded in bringing an end to, or reducing the number of murders in any country.

parliamentary history - siaka stevensState sanctioned killing will not break the cycle of youth violence in Sierra Leone, it will perpetuate it.

State execution in Sierra Leone was used prolifically by the ruling APC throughout the 1970s and 1980s, both as a political weapon as well as a tool for curbing social ills. Hundreds of people, including politicians met their end at the gallows. (Photo: APC president Stevens).

A notorious example was a case that became known as the wellington street murder trial, in which a group of six or seven young men were found guilty of murdering a bar owner. They were executed by the state in retaliation.

Another case involved a fight between two sixth form male school pupils named Walker and Farmer, following the annual secondary school sports meeting at the Brookfields stadium.  Walker was found guilty of murder, after stabbing Farmer to death. He was later executed, according to president Siaka Stevens – to set an example to young people.

But extreme violence continued in Sierra Leone unabated, leading to the brutal rebel war in 1991, in the face of rising abject poverty, corruption, poor governance, abuse of state power and impunity.

President Koroma promotes his Agenda for povertyIn 2007, president Koroma promised to repeal the death penalty if elected as president, because he believed that state execution is wrong and retributive. He believed as a Christian, that state killing has no place in a civilised society and has been conveniently abused by dictatorships to eliminate those with whom they disagree, as has been the case in the contemporary political history of Sierra Leone.

Few will condone violent conduct by youths in Sierra Leone, especially murder. But there is another way to punish those found guilty of murder, after fair trial and having exhausted the appeal process. They should be deployed in state owned farms for the rest of their lives, where they will work and produce food to feed the family of victims of their crimes as well as the nation. After all, Sierra Leone is one of the poorest nations in the world and is struggling to feed itself.

The youths of Sierra Leone today are a product of the ten year long brutal civil war. Most of them were born during the war, and are still suffering from psychological damage caused by the conflict, as well as drug abuse. The government must spend more on mental health rehabilitation for young people.

Sierra Leone needs a sustainable policy for addressing youth violence, based on increased investment in education, especially school and tertiary education, where most young people in Sierra Leone are being let down by the state.

Pademba Road Prison, Sierra LeoneThe government must invest in productive skills training that combines with a national private sector apprenticeships programme, leading to employment.

Community development programme schemes must also be established and properly run, for the benefit of those unable to gain employment in the private sector. (Photo: Young people locked up like sardines in Sierra Leone’s prisons).

Furthermore, there is plenty of research evidence suggesting that investing in building the lives of children in society, can be good for society; and killing them when they get to adolescence is counterproductive.

Writing for, Chandre Gould a senior research fellow at the Institute for Security Studies and a research associate at Durban University of Technology says that societies must protect children if they want fewer criminals.

This is her advice to policy makers:

What drives and sustains high levels of violence in a society? This question has preoccupied researchers and policymakers for decades. A common thread in a great deal of the research is that early childhood experiences play a vital role. Violent beginnings of a child’s life very often lead to violent behaviour in later life.

The question is particularly acute in countries with exceptionally high levels of violence. This is true of South Africa where the homicide rate of 34 per 100 000 people compares to the homicide rates of Honduras, Colombia and El Salvador, and places the country among the 20 countries globally with the highest rates of homicide.

Between 2010 and 2015 I undertook a study of the life histories of 20 men in prison. The intention was to improve understanding of recidivism, to inform sentencing policies, enable the early detection of indicators for repeat offending, and inform rehabilitation programmes and interventions.

I concluded from my research that preventing and reducing stubbornly high levels of violence in South Africa can only be achieved if the country focuses on ensuring that children are not exposed to violence or toxic stress at home, and that they are warmly cared for. It is equally important to ensure that children are protected from violence at school.

Violent histories

The men I interviewed had been jailed for multiple violent offences. They came from a range of socio-economic backgrounds and different areas in the country. In all cases their criminal behaviour was clearly linked to multiple adversity from early in their lives.

None of them is blameless. The crimes they committed were cruel and often brutal. But their personal, familial and contextual circumstances had a significant impact on their criminal careers.

They all shared an early and overwhelming sense of loss resulting from feelings of physical and/or emotional separation from parents, carers, professionals and responsible adults. Sometimes this loss was experienced as betrayal. In some cases this betrayal happened by omission and in others it was deliberate.

Their loss was exacerbated by experiences of neglect and abuse at the hands of family members and the staff of state agencies and institutions from whom they were entitled to expect care and support, if not love.

Ryan, a white man incarcerated for the brutal murder of his brother, started his life as an unwanted child. His mother told me:

I became a mother with him at age 17 years. I did not want him but my mother forced me to keep him. I was very hard on him; I slapped him around a lot. I never took to him. I did not like him.

Beatings at home were repeated at school where he was bullied daily. His stepfather, the only adult who ever showed him any love and warmth, died when he was 12 – a turning point in his life. From this point Ryan, who was deeply traumatised by the loss, began a trajectory that resulted in him being jailed, first in a brutal reformatory and later spending more time in prison than out.

There were plenty of warning signs and professionals who could have responded. The educational psychologist who assessed Ryan after the death of his stepfather could have used it as an opportunity to refer the family for further support. That did not happen.

Zibonele was the son of a farm worker on a racist Free State farm. He was left at two with his uncle who already had eight children. His life was hard. Like Ryan, he was bullied at school and beaten by his teachers. “At school there would be somebody who would like to ill-treat you for the fun of it. It was just like in prison…the older boys wanted to ill-treat me. We ended up fighting horribly. We were later beaten, given seven lashes by a teacher.”

He had an early experience of brutality and injustice at the hands of the criminal justice system. He and his co-workers were lashed by police after eating more mealies for lunch than the farmer thought they deserved.

Zibonele would go on to strangle and murder three young girls. No one took any notice of the early signs that he was in trouble. Teachers who could have seen the signs were instead complicit in his abuse.

Loss and violence

For most of the men I interviewed, their routine use of violence was both necessary for survival and a means to acquire symbols of status. Over time they adopted the hyper-masculine identities that were necessary to secure that status, at least among their peers.

Once they had dropped out of school they found peer groups who were equally alienated from adults and structures of authority.

Several of the men seemed to have had difficulties learning at school. These possibly stemmed from undiagnosed problems that were left unattended. Dropping out of school signalled an untethering from relationships that could have built resilience and increased opportunities to reverse their destructive trajectories.

All of them experienced stress and trauma from early in their lives, and several turned to alcohol and drugs as a form of self-medication. This led not only to more violence, but also to a deepening of their personal crises.

In their adult lives two factors in particular seem to have had a significant impact on their criminal trajectories. One was where they lived. The men who lived in urban areas were more likely to follow a trajectory from petty crime, such as shoplifting, to more serious and violent property crime.

The other was gun ownership. Having a gun did not necessarily initiate their criminal trajectories. But it did have an effect on the nature and severity of the crimes they committed. Gun ownership signalled an increase in the violence of their crimes, and the value of their crimes – they were able to rob more effectively with a gun than without.

Breaking the cycle of violence

Interventions at the family and relationship level need to be supported by change at societal level, in particular through addressing working and childcare conditions for parents. Accessible and safe early childhood development centres and after-school care facilities are essential, as is parental leave – for both parents – after the birth of a child. Parenting programmes have also been shown to reduce stress and improve the relationships between parents and their children.

But these need to be pursued alongside other interventions such as improving gun control, and targeted interventions to support individuals and families living in poor, high-violence environments.

The foundations for violence and criminality are laid between 10 and 20 years before the effects are felt by society. In other words, the way the state and a society respond to children who witness and experience violence, neglect and abuse in 2016 will determine whether we will see the same levels of violence in 2026.

1 Comment

  1. While I agree public safety is an important issue which government must take very seriously and formulate efficient policy to address its breach, it does need careful study in order to trace the root of the problem, then, act accordingly to bring it under control, as the case should be in Sierra Leone.

    An emotional approach with the intention to appease the citizenry as set forth by the Interior Minister and government, to evoke the death penalty, will likely produce a collateral effect on the very people themselves, especially for political opponents.

    The death penalty many a time is applied indiscriminately, even more for African governments who often resorted to the death penalty for eliminating political opponents over the years. The APC government has a gloomy record on that account.

    This APC government is right now standing on its toes and is staggering to stand still; the death penalty could be used as a tool to intimidate not only dangerous criminals but also political opponents.

    Activating the death penalty in the twenty-first century when we have already become of age as a civilized people, is simply about their yearning for power perpetually.

    The Ernest Koroma government, having failed the Sierra Leonean people in almost a decade of governance with no substantial progress achieved in terms of the social wellbeing of the populace in all aspects, they now intend to throw clouds over their failure, blowing out the problem of violence which the people had lived with along the years without proper attention paid to the problem by this government.

    Our Attorney General revealed a whopping number of twenty-five murders are committed every month in a country with a population of almost seven million; this is horrific!

    What has the government been doing all this time since the figure got up to ten homicides in a month? The problem should have been tackled with immediate effect to bring this number to its lowest and with adequate measures put in place.

    Why did the government chose to adopt such an outdated and uncivilized punishment (death penalty), instead of embarking on educational and caring programs for youths and the citizenry in general, so as to deter and curb crime in the country.

    The death penalty will never address murderous crimes adequately in the society. It is just retrogression and back to the past when more political opponents were killed than murderous criminals. The government had better invest on prevention programs and civic education across the country.

    Can the death penalty actually console the pain bereaved parents and loved ones whose relatives lost their lives to a murderer? Many will agree that it does not. The pain still remains for a life time. Therefore, the solution is police effectiveness and effective deterrent policy of our government in tackling the problem.

    Sierra Leoneans must not buy this idea of the death penalty. It can be counterproductive against the people. The return of the death penalty must be rejected strongly by all conscious people.

    President Ernest Koroma had just experienced his first big embarrassment in the UN, speaking to bare and empty seats in the world’s most important assembly.

    He should be brainstorming by now about what will come next to make wise judgments and abandon the idea of the death penalty, otherwise the worst may linger.

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