''All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing'' - Edmund Burke


S I E R R A  H E R A L D

Vol XI No 7

The tendency sometimes to protect perpetrators for the sake of peace...doesn't help society. Impunity should not be allowed to stand. - Kofi Annan on Waki report

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Human rights violations during the period of AFRC rule

The period from 25 May 1997 until 12 February 1998 was marked by a total disregard for the rule of law and demands from the international community to respect international humanitarian and human rights law. The rule of law completely collapsed and violence engulfed the country.

Hundreds of people who were associated with the government of President Kabbah or his political party, the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), or who were perceived to be opposed to the AFRC were detained without charge or trial, torture and ill-treatment were systematic, and many of those perceived to be political opponents of the AFRC were extrajudicially executed.

On 20 October 1997 Amnesty International published a report which documented the human rights violations systematically committed by the AFRC and the RUF after the military coup [8]. The victims included those associated with the government of President Kabbah, journalists, students and human rights activists. Between October 1997 and February 1998 arrests, torture and killings continued relentlessly. The full toll of those detained, tortured, ill-treated and killed while the AFRC and RUF held power only emerged after they were forced from power.

During the period of AFRC rule, while it was possible to obtain limited information about human rights violations in Freetown, few details of what was happening in the Provinces were accessible. When an Amnesty International delegation travelled to Sierra Leone in May 1998, the extent of the suffering of civilians became evident. Killings, rape and looting were systematic in all parts of the country. Hundreds of people had been deliberately and arbitrarily killed, thousands lost their possessions, homes and livelihoods. Rape of girls and women was systematic throughout the country.

Amnesty International repeatedly called on the AFRC to end the systematic human rights violations which occurred after May 1997 and to adhere to its obligations under international human rights law, in particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (African Charter)[9]. It called for urgent measures to end arbitrary arrest and detention of those perceived to be opposed to the AFRC and to end torture, ill-treatment and extrajudicial executions.

It is important that there continue to be full and independent investigations into the human rights violations committed during the period of AFRC rule and that the truth of what occurred during those months is established and documented in order to bring those responsible to justice. There should be no impunity for the grave human rights violations committed throughout the period of AFRC rule. Investigation and accountability for these human rights violations will also contribute towards the process of national reconciliation within Sierra Leone.

Arbitrary arrest and detention

Hundreds of political detainees were held incommunicado without charge or trial. It was difficult to assess with any accuracy the number of those detained because of continuous arrests and releases, the failure of the authorities to provide information about detainees and lack of access to places of detention. Detainees were held at the Central Prison, Pademba Road, the police Criminal Investigation Department (CID) headquarters and Cockerill military headquarters in Freetown as well as other military camps, such as that known as the SS camp at the village of Regent in the hills above Freetown.

Throughout the period of AFRC rule journalists were particular targets of arrest, detention and torture. During October and November 1997 the crack-down on the press intensified; at least 20 journalists were detained and many were tortured and ill-treated. They included Jon Z. Foray, editor of the New Storm newspaper, who was arrested by soldiers on 11 October 1997. He was taken first to Cockerill military headquarters where he was handed over to the military police and then held in a freight container. Also held in the container was Prince Akpu, a Nigerian journalist who had established a newspaper called Alpha jet, and who was arrested around the same time and accused of subversive activities. (Nigerian ECOMOG forces had used military aircraft called Alpha jets in their operations.) Two days later the two journalists were collected by a senior AFRC member, apparently to be taken to CID headquarters. They were, however, blindfolded and taken to the SS camp. Jon Z. Foray was beaten and stabbed with bayonets by soldiers and sustained a serious injury to his spine. He and Prince Akpu were released on 22 October 1997. With the help of friends, Jon Z. Foray managed to leave Sierra Leone for Ghana where he was admitted to hospital and received two months of medical treatment.

Arrests of journalists continued into November 1997: Dorothy Awoonor Gordon, acting editor of the Concord Times, Ibrahim Karim-Sei, editor of the Standard Times, and Pius Foray, editor of The Democrat, were among those detained and subsequently released without charge.

Sylvanus Kanyako, a journalist working for the Herald Guardian, and David Kamara, the newspaper's proprietor, were arrested on 10 January 1998, the day after an article suggested that a prominent member of the AFRC, Sergeant Abu "Zagalo" Sankoh, should be arrested in connection with the looting of the Iranian Embassy in Freetown on 31 December 1997. Sylvanus Kanyako was arrested by soldiers after being identified by an AFRC supporter. He and David Kamara were detained for three weeks. Both men were tortured. Sylvanus Kanyako was tied tightly with his arms behind his back, beaten all over his body and burned with a cigarette. At one point he lost consciousness. He sustained serious injuries to his arms and hands. He was then taken to CID cells where he remained, without any medical treatment, until he managed to escape on 30 January 1998.

On 30 January 1998 Michael Lawson, a university student at Fourah Bay College in Freetown, was arrested. He was apparently accused of passing information to a radio station broadcasting in support of the government of President Kabbah. The radio station, 98.1 FM, had been broadcasting clandestinely since July 1997. Many people suspected of providing information to the radio station, or knowing from where broadcasts were transmitted, had previously been arrested and detained. He was reported to be held at CID headquarters until his release in February 1998 after the intervention by ECOMOG.

Torture and extrajudicial executions

Ill-treatment, torture and extrajudicial executions were systematic throughout the period of AFRC rule. Soldiers and RUF members operated with impunity and created a climate of fear both in Freetown and throughout the country.

On 14 January 1998 a trader, Sama Turay, was shot dead by soldiers on Wilkinson Road in Freetown after an argument. Local residents were forced to hand the body over to soldiers. Residents of the area staged a demonstration along Wilkinson Road the following day in protest against the killing. This demonstration coincided with a visit to Freetown of a delegation headed by the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy to Sierra Leone, at that time based in Conakry, for discussions with the AFRC on the implementation of the peace agreement signed in Conakry in October 1997.

The demonstration on 15 January 1998 was brutally suppressed; soldiers indiscriminately beat civilians and raided homes in the area around Wilkinson Road. They went from house to house accusing civilians of deliberately discrediting the AFRC during the visit of the delegation. One of the victims was a 25-year-old trader. When soldiers arrived at his stall he was hit in the face with butt of an AK 47 gun and was also badly beaten on his back. He recognized the soldiers who beat him and described them as relatives of Major Johnny Paul Koroma.

Another of the victims was an 18-year-old girl, also living in the Wilkinson Road area, who had joined the demonstration. Three days later six soldiers came to her home. She was raped by all six soldiers who then cut her hair and shaved her head with a broken bottle.

In Kenema, Eastern Province, terror reigned throughout the period of AFRC rule. The town was effectively under the control of the RUF and, in particular, Sam Bockarie. As in Freetown and other parts of the country, rape of girls and women was systematic and at least a hundred civilians were reported to have been deliberately and arbitrarily killed in Kenema. Every house in the town was looted. The homes of those perceived to have been supporters of the SLPP were destroyed.

On 13 and 14 January 1998 several prominent members of the community in Kenema were arrested by members of the RUF under the supervision of Sam Bockarie. They included B.S. Massaquoi, the chairman of the town council, Dr P.B. Momoh, a medical doctor, Paramount Chief Moinama Karmor, a traditional leader, and Ibrahim Kpaka, a businessman. They were arrested at a time of fierce fighting between the kamajors and AFRC and RUF forces around Kenema and were accused of supporting the kamajors. They were held at the AFRC Secretariat building in Kenema, which had been the local SLPP headquarters, and some were later moved to the police station and army brigade headquarters. They were stripped and repeatedly beaten with sticks, electric cable and strips of tyres and were threatened with death. Their arms were tied tightly behind them. One of those detained sustained a serious head wound and injury to his eye after being beaten on his head with a gun. At least one of these detained died as a result of beatings.

Some of those arrested were released on 26 January 1998 and escaped to safety. B.S. Massaquoi, however, was among those who remained held at army brigade headquarters. He was killed by members of the RUF on 8 February 1998 as news arrived of ECOMOG's offensive on Freetown and as kamajors entered Kenema. Dozens of other people were also reported to have been killed. The mutilated body of B.S. Massaquoi and 35 other people were reported to have been found in mass grave near Kenema on 23 March 1998.

The use of the death penalty by the AFRC

The AFRC resorted to the use of the death penalty in an apparent attempt to be seen to be taking action to impose law and order but in doing so violated international human rights standards. On 25 October 1997 10 soldiers were executed after being convicted of murder and sentenced to death by a military court. A further 17 people were reported to have been executed on 2 November 1997, apparently after conviction by a military court although some reports suggested that summary executions took place without any form of legal proceedings. Another eight people were publicly executed in Koidu on 2 December 1997. According to reports, they had been convicted of armed robbery by a military court, from which there was no right of appeal.

On 28 November 1997 a new decree was promulgated which was retroactive to the time of the military coup and which extended the scope of the death penalty by making death sentences statutory for the offences of looting and commandeering vehicles.

International standards prohibit the retroactive use of the death penalty. The ICCPR states that the death sentence may be imposed only "in accordance with the law in force at the time of the commission of the crime" and also that a heavier penalty shall not be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time when the criminal offence was committed. The Safeguards Guaranteeing the Protection of the Rights of Those Facing the Death Penalty state that: "Capital punishment may be imposed only for a crime for which the death penalty is prescribed by law at the time of its commission...".

In addition, the ICCPR states that: "In countries which have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes...". The Safeguards Guaranteeing the Protection of the Rights of Those Facing the Death Penalty, adopted by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 1994, also state that "... capital punishment may be imposed only for the most serious crimes ... with lethal or other extremely grave circumstances." The UN Human Rights Committee, a body of 18 experts established under the ICCPR, stated in 1996 that: "Extension of the scope of the application of the death penalty raises questions as to the compatibility with Article 6 of the Covenant", which guarantees the right to life. The UN Commission on Human Rights, in a resolution adopted in April 1997, called on all states which have not yet abolished the death penalty "progressively to restrict the number of offences for which the death penalty may be imposed".

Amnesty International urged the AFRC to repeal this legislation and to ensure that all death sentences were commuted and that no further executions took place.


  • investigations into the human rights violations committed during the period of AFRC rule should continue to be undertaken in order to bring those responsible to justice and to provide compensation to the victims of human rights violations;

  • assistance for documenting the human rights violations which occurred during this period should be provided by the international community.

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©Sierra Herald 2002