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The new government of Sierra Leone must start fulfilling its promises to improve the human rights situation in the country by lifting restrictions on peaceful demonstrations and ending entrenched impunity for police killings of protesters, Amnesty International said in a new report published today.

A Force for Good? Restrictions on peaceful assembly and impunity for excessive use of force by the Sierra Leone police documents how, over the past decade, peaceful anti-government protests have repeatedly been refused permission or violently dispersed with unlawful killings by police going unpunished.

“The authorities must ensure and promote the right of individuals to peacefully assemble without fear for their safety. Sierra Leone’s new government has a key opportunity to implement reforms that would help the police manage demonstrations effectively and safely, restore the public’s trust in the security forces and live up to the police’s own motto – A Force for Good,” said Solomon Sogbandi, Director of Amnesty International Sierra Leone.

“For 10 years, police in Sierra Leone have literally been getting away with murder as peaceful protesters and bystanders have lost their lives, or been seriously injured, with no one held to account. If the new authorities are as serious as they say about upholding human rights, they should start by repealing repressive laws restricting peaceful assembly and addressing entrenched impunity for police abuses.”

Long-standing impunity for police abuses

Since coming to power in April 2018, President Maada Bio has made commitments to reform the security sector and protect human rights in a country where impunity for police abuses is deeply entrenched.

Over the past 10 years, police have frequently used excessive force to disperse spontaneous protests, with at least nine protesters killed and more than 80 injured. Amnesty International’s report also found that more than 80 protesters had their properties looted or were arbitrarily arrested.

No police officer has been held criminally responsible for any case documented by Amnesty International, despite recommendations made by two Commissions of Inquiry and the Independent Police Complaints Board. In most cases, police officers accused of wrongdoing have merely been transferred to a different department.

In one case, Amnesty International found that the police officer suspected of giving the command to shoot had been promoted. In another case, a police officer suspected of being responsible avoided disciplinary action despite being recommended for dismissal in a 2009 Commission of Inquiry.

Repressive laws restricting peaceful assembly have also been used to prosecute protesters, 39 of whom were on trial for their involvement in assemblies in 2015 and 2016.  However, on 20 June this year, a court acquitted 16 of those arrested in 2015 after more than 50 court appearances.

Lack of redress

Many of the protesters targeted have been young. In March 2017, a young boy was shot dead and two students injured when police opened fire on students protesting the closure of their university in the southern province of Bo. One of the students still has a bullet in his heart but cannot access specialist medical treatment which is only available outside Sierra Leone.

In August 2016, two schoolboys were shot dead and four young men injured when police opened fire on a protest against the removal of a planned youth village.

“I felt that they had killed me that day,” the mother of one of the boys killed told Amnesty International.

One of the young men was shot in the back and can no longer work because of his injuries. However, there are no clear guidelines for awarding compensation to victims or their families.

A student who was shot and injured during a student protest in Bo on 23 March 2017 told Amnesty International:

“Seeking justice in this country is like looking for a needle in a haystack, especially when it is against the government.”

No reforms without accountability

Amnesty International is calling on the new Sierra Leonean government to overhaul a repressive legal framework that is out of step with the country’s obligations under international human rights law. The Sierra Leone People’s Party has claimed for years whilst in opposition that it was a victim of repressive laws and policing and now has a chance to effect change whilst in government.

The authorities must ensure that victims and their families enjoy the right to an effective remedy, including adequate compensation, and guarantee of non-repetition. The authorities should set up a mechanism for compensating victims of police abuses and address the chronic lack of funds, training and hierarchical accountability within the police force.

The organization is also calling for the Independent Police Complaints Board, set up in 2015 as an external body to oversee the police, to obtain more resources and enforcement powers.

“The Sierra Leone government needs to send a strong signal that police abuses will not be tolerated anymore,” said Sabrina Mahtani, Amnesty International’s West Africa researcher.

“President Bio has made many positive statements about strengthening human rights, but any reform of the criminal justice system must go together with a strong commitment to achieve accountability and redress for past abuses.”