Sierra Leone: The Significance of the Abolition of the Death Penalty

By HANNA BAJWA


Sierra Leone’s President, Julius Maada Bio, is soon expected to sign a bill into law that would make his country the 23rd African country to abolish capital punishment. The vote, which was unanimous, repealed the death penalty more than two decades after the country had carried out its last execution – yet sentences were still being issued.

This is not the only reform President Julius Maada Bio’s government has enacted to improve the criminal justice system, another notable example being the repeal of a law frequently used to repress the media.


In May, when President Bio announced to the United Nations that he intended to end capital punishment, Deputy Minister of Justice, Umaru Napoleon Koroma, said that the President had made abolition a priority so as to “uphold the fundamental human rights of Sierra Leoneans.”


Last year, Sierra Leone ordered 39 death sentences, compared with 21 in 2019, according to Amnesty. As of the end of 2020, there were still 94 people who had been given the death penalty in Sierra Leone, yet no executions have been carried out since 1998. Now, none will ever be carried out, as capital punishment will be replaced with life imprisonment or a minimum 30-year jail term.


The vote in Sierra Leone follows many other countries throughout the continent. In April, Malawi ruled the death penalty unconstitutional, in May of 2020 Chad did the same, and Sierra Leone’s neighbouring West African countries: Guinea, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, and Togo have also abolished the death penalty. Nearly half of Africa’s 54 independent countries have abolished the punishment, a number which has more than doubled in less than 20 years.


Just as the death penalty in much of the United States is considered a vestige of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow era segregation, it is regarded across the African continent to be a vestige of European colonial laws. This new law is a necessary step in the right direction in an effort to discard the brutal laws imposed by past colonisers.


However, the abolition of the death penalty is not just a step forward against outdated colonial laws, but also for women’s rights. The new law would be particularly beneficial to women and girls accused of murdering an abuser. In the past, the death penalty was mandatory for such cases in Sierra Leone, meaning a judge could not consider any mitigating circumstances, such as gender-based violence. For example, one Sierra Leonean woman was sentenced to death in 2010 for the murder of her abusive boyfriend. He had been attacking her with a pipe, and she picked up a knife in self-defence. She was just 17, and thus should not have been subject to adult legal proceedings. Another woman was put on death row for six years after being convicted for poisoning her baby step-daughter, when actually she had just given her plain water. Sabrina Mahtani, co-founder of AdvocAid, an organisation at the forefront of abolishing the death penalty in Sierra Leone, expands on the abolition’s impact, stating that allowing judges to consider all the circumstances of a case, such as a history of gender-based violence or mental illness, would hopefully prevent any more injustices from occurring.


Sierra Leone stands as an example to other countries that still maintain capital punishment laws throughout the globe. As a small country in Africa, who suffered through a brutal civil war 20 years ago, their abolition of the death penalty should stand as a shining example to others. While death penalties and executions have declined recently across the globe, this does not accurately reflect the growing number of countries who have banned the death penalty. According to Amnesty International, some 108 countries across the world had completely abolished the death penalty by the end of 2020, while 144 had abolished it in law or in practice.


Although this decline could be attributed to the ongoing pandemic, which has slowed judicial proceedings globally, in some countries such as the United States, federal executions were increased in 2020. Yet the United States only ranks sixth in the list of countries that executes people, with China dominating the list, followed by Iran, Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Could Sierra Leone provide the example these countries need to reform their own nations towards a more peaceful and progressive future?


Image: Flickr (Bibelselskabet Danish Bible Society)