Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
In contrast to 2019, there were several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
The Independent Police Complaints Board (IPCB) is the body responsible for investigating police misconduct. The IPCB is an independent civilian oversight mechanism with a mandate within the security sector to receive and investigate complaints from the public and advise the leadership of the Sierra Leone Police.
On April 29, a riot broke out at Pademba Road Correctional Center in Freetown leading to 31 fatalities, including one corrections officer and 30 inmates. Thirty-two corrections officers and 21 inmates sustained injuries. After prisoners reportedly set fire to walls in storerooms and took hostages, security officials used live ammunition. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Prison Watch indicated the inmates were protesting the perceived preferential treatment of high-profile detainees, while Amnesty International reported it reflected health concerns after the first COVID cases in the Prison were reported the previous day. In July, Sierra Leone Correctional Services (SLCS) authorities reported the riot was sparked by overcrowding, an announcement that court sessions would be suspended for one month, COVID-19 health restrictions, and reports of a COVID-19 case at the prison.
The IPCB opened an investigation into the July alleged killing by security officers of six individuals in Makeni. The victims were participating in a protest against the government’s relocation of a power generator and transformers from Makeni to Port Loko District to support the airport’s operations. Residents reportedly burned tires on the streets and threw rocks during the protest. Authorities used tear gas and live ammunition in response.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits such practices, and there were no reports that government officials employed them. NGOs reported, however, that security forces used excessive force to manage civil protests in Freetown and provincial town (see section 1.a.).
Impunity remained a significant problem in the security forces, notably in the Sierra Leone Police (SLP). Observers noted police lacked training on crowd control and on human rights topics.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention center conditions were harsh and life threatening because of food shortages; gross overcrowding due to an inefficient justice system and a lack of sufficient correctional facilities and personnel; physical abuse; lack of clean water; inadequate sanitary conditions; and a lack of medical care.
Physical Conditions: The country’s 21 prisons, designed to hold 2,375 inmates, held 3,808 as of August. The most severe example of overcrowding was in the Freetown Male Correctional Center, designed to hold 324 inmates, which instead held 1,407 individuals. Some prison cells measuring six feet by nine feet held nine or more inmates. The NGO Prison Watch and the SLCS reported that 13 prisons and detention centers were moderately overcrowded.
In most cases pretrial detainees were held with convicted prisoners. The SLCS reported that as of August, of the 3,808 persons held in prisons and detention centers, 1,289 had been convicted. The SLCS also reported one inmate jailed in 2007 had yet to appear in court.
SLCS authorities and human rights observers reported detention conditions remained below minimum international standards because of overcrowding, unhygienic conditions, and insufficient medical attention. Conditions in police station holding cells were poor, especially in small stations outside Freetown. Lack of adequate physical facilities created life-threatening conditions for detainees. Holding cells in some facilities were often dark, with little ventilation, and inmates slept on bare floors, using mattresses and clothes as bedding. The Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone (HRCSL) reported poor toilet facilities in some correctional centers. Inmates were often forced to use buckets as toilets.
Cells often lacked proper lighting, bedding, ventilation, and protection from mosquitoes. For security reasons authorities refused to allow inmates to sleep under mosquito nets, requiring inmates to use chemical repellants instead. Most prisons did not have piped water, and some inmates lacked sufficient access to potable drinking water. In September 2019 observers reported that in some facilities to avoid overcrowding in the common areas, authorities confined inmates to their cells for long periods without opportunity for movement.
Prison authorities issued bedding and blankets to inmates at the Freetown Female and Male Correctional Centers. Some mattresses were on the floor at the Male Correctional Center. Conditions in detention centers, including lighting and ventilation, were generally better for female inmates than for male inmates.
As of August the SLCS reported 53 deaths in prisons and detention facilities due to malaria, respiratory infections, skin infections, hypertension, asthma, pneumonia, pulmonary tuberculosis, kidney diseases, sickle cell disease, and typhoid fever. The HRCSL confirmed the causes of death as reported by the SLCS were further related to prison conditions, such as overcrowding and poor hygienic conditions. The SLCS reported the government provided adequate sanitation and medications for inmates. In cases of medical emergencies, prison authorities transferred inmates to the nearest government hospitals. Officials referred female inmates to local hospitals for special care, and government hospitals complied with the requests.
Some of the victims in the April 29 Pademba Road prison riot may also have been due to prisoner-on-prisoner violence (see section 1.a.).
Prison authorities and the HRCSL reported there was no discrimination against inmates with disabilities. The HRCSL reported it had no information regarding abuse of inmates with disabilities.
The HRCSL and Prison Watch reported a shortage of prison staff, which resulted in a lack of security that endangered inmates’ safety. The March 2019 inmate violence in Bo led to the death of one inmate. According to the SLCS, the case against 13 inmates who allegedly participated in the killing was pending trial at the high court in Bo. Prison authorities in Bo further reported that some of the suspects have completed their initial prison sentences but are still under detention pending a ruling from the high court.
As of August Prison Watch and the HRCSL reported that no prison or detention center facility held male and female inmates together.
The HRCSL reported on September 14 that there were no juveniles in correctional facilities across the country. Nonetheless, it was often difficult to confirm the ages of inmates due to the pervasive lack of official documentation, which resulted in some juveniles being treated as adults.
Authorities sent most offenders younger than 18 to “approved schools” or reformatory institutions. According to the SLCS, although authorities made some effort to avoid detaining juveniles with adults, they frequently detained minors with adults in police cells while waiting to transfer them to juvenile facilities in Freetown. There are two remand homes for juvenile suspects and one approved school for convicted juveniles. Authorities acknowledged these facilities lacked resources to function properly.
In juvenile facilities detainees had adequate access to food and water, but did not have access to education and were sometimes unable to attend court hearings due to lack of transportation.
According to SLCS authorities, as of August there were four infants in correctional centers across the country, most of whom were born in prison and initially kept there with their mothers. Once such children were weaned, authorities released them to family members or to the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender, and Children’s Affairs, which placed them in foster care. SLCS authorities in Freetown, Bo, and Kenema provided government-funded child-care centers for children of inmates.
Administration: There was no prison ombudsman, but senior prison officials were available to respond to complaints. Inmates reportedly refrained from filing complaints directly with prison authorities because they believed such actions would spur retaliation by judicial authorities.
Authorities permitted regular family visits and provided a telephone for inmates to communicate with their relatives. The SLCS has visibly painted on murals the hours of inmate visitation and communicated that visits are free of charge.
Prison rights advocacy groups and the HRCSL reported that authorities generally investigated credible allegations of mistreatment of inmates.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted monitoring by independent nongovernmental observers. International monitors had unrestricted access to the detention centers and police holding cells. The HRCSL and Prison Watch monitored prisons monthly. The SLCS also freely allowed other NGOs such as Humanist Watch to monitor prison conditions on a regular basis.
Improvements: In recent years the SLCS has improved its facilities, policies, and practices in an effort to align with international standards for the treatment of inmates. Solar boreholes were constructed in the Port Loko, Bo, and Moyamba district correctional facilities. Recent SLCS security policies, such as key control, were complemented by expanded inmate programs, including access to information, increased visitation hours, and expanded services such as educational and vocational training opportunities.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, but human rights groups such as Amnesty International and the HRCSL indicated that police occasionally arrested and detained persons arbitrarily, including members of an opposition party. The government allows the SLP and the chiefdom police to hold suspects in police detention cells without charge or explanation for up to three days for suspected misdemeanors and up to 10 days for suspected felonies. The NGO Campaign for Human Rights and Development International (CHRDI) reported cases of illegal detentions at several police stations and the Freetown Male Correctional Center. Chiefs sometimes subjected both adults and children to arbitrary detention and imprisoned them unlawfully in their homes or “chiefdom jails.”
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The law requires warrants for searches and arrests of persons taken into custody on criminal grounds, but arrests without warrants were common. CHRDI reported some arrests were made without warrants and that the SLP in some instances did not follow proper arrest procedures.
The law requires authorities to inform detainees of the reason for their arrest within 24 hours and charge them in court within 72 hours for suspected misdemeanors or within 10 days for suspected felonies. Detainees, however, were not always informed promptly of charges brought against them. According to Prison Watch, authorities routinely brought remanded (detained pretrial) inmates to court on a weekly basis to be remanded again to circumvent the legal restrictions.
The judiciary applied the bail system inconsistently and sometimes demanded excessive bond fees.
Detainees have the right to access family members and to consult with an attorney in a timely manner. Lawyers generally were allowed unrestricted access to detainees. According to the director of public prosecution and the office of the Legal Aid Board, an estimated 80 percent of inmates received legal representation, while the CHRDI reported 40 percent of accused persons received legal representation. Only defendants in the military justice system had automatic access to attorneys, whose fees the Ministry of Defense paid. Although there were 53 active state counsels (public defenders), the majority worked in the capital and were often overburdened, poorly paid, and available only for more serious criminal cases.
Arbitrary Arrest: There were reports of individuals held for questioning for longer than permissible under law.
On May 1, police arrested Sylvia Blyden, former minister of social welfare, gender and children’s affairs and a journalist and opposition All People’s Congress (APC) party member, for alleged libel offenses involving social media posts critical of the government. Police detained her beyond the 72 hours legal limit provided by law. On May 29, authorities released Blyden on bail but then re-arrested her June 2 for allegedly violating bail conditions. On June 25, police released Blyden again on bail. The charges were dropped after the law criminalizing seditious libel was amended in August.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention remained a problem. As of September of the 3,808 persons held in prisons and detention centers, 33 percent were convicted, 41 percent were in pretrial detention, and 26 percent were on trial. The SLCS attributed the high percentage of pretrial detainees to a severe shortage of legal professionals. A donor-funded program identified other specific reasons for extensive pretrial detention, such as magistrates and judges not consistently granting bail when warranted, the Ministry of Justice Law Officers Department often failing to bring indictments, and inadequate information exchange and case management across the criminal justice system. Pretrial and remand detainees spent an average of three to five years in pretrial detention before courts examined their cases or filed formal charges. In extreme cases the wait could be as long as 12 years.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary. Observers, including NGOs, assessed the judiciary maintained relative independence.
In addition to the formal court system, local chieftaincy courts administer customary law with lay judges, primarily in rural areas. Appeals from these lower courts are heard by the magistrate courts. Paramount chiefs in villages maintained their own police and courts to enforce customary local law. Chieftaincy police and courts exercised authority to arrest, try, and incarcerate individuals. Traditional trials were generally fair, but there was credible evidence that corruption influenced many cases. Paramount chiefs acting as judges routinely accepted bribes and favored wealthier defendants. In response in 2019 the government sent 36 paralegals to rural areas to provide access to justice and training for chiefdom officials.
The limited number of judicial magistrates and lawyers, along with high court fees, restricted access to justice for most citizens. Since 2019, six new judges were appointed to the High Court and one to the Court of Appeal.
The military justice system has a different appeals process. For summary hearings the defendant may appeal for the redress of a complaint, which proceeds to the next senior ranking officer, while the civilian Supreme Court hears appeals in a court-martial. According to civil society members and government interlocutors, corruption is prevalent in the redress system.
Authorities at all levels of government generally respected court orders.
The law provides for the right to a fair trial for all defendants, but this right was not always enforced.
Defendants enjoy the right to a timely trial, but the lack of judicial officers and facilities regularly resulted in long trial delays. Some cases reportedly were adjourned 20 to 30 times. Trials are public, but NGOs reported that due to corruption they were not always fair. Defendants generally enjoyed a presumption of innocence. While defendants have the right to be present and to consult with an attorney in a timely manner, some defendants were not afforded access to counsel. Although the law provides for attorneys at public expense if defendants are not able to afford their own attorneys, these attorneys were overburdened with cases, and often defendants who could not afford to pay for an attorney had no access to legal aid prior to trial.
Defendants were not always informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them and did not always have access to free assistance from an interpreter as necessary from the moment charged through all appeals. Defendants generally had adequate time to prepare their defenses, although they generally did not have adequate facilities to do so. Defendants may confront or question witnesses against them, and present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. Police officers, many of whom had little or no formal legal training, prosecuted some of cases on the magistrate level. Defendants have the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Although the law provides defendants with the right to appeal, delays in the appeals process were excessive, sometimes lasting more than two years. The law extends these rights to all defendants.
Traditional justice systems continued to supplement the central government judiciary, especially in rural areas, in cases involving family law, inheritance, and land tenure. The customary law guiding these courts was not codified, however, and decisions in similar cases were inconsistent. Paramount chiefs have authority over civil matters, such as land disputes, and referred criminal cases to police for investigation and prosecution. Local chieftains at times exceeded their mandates and administered harsh punishments.
Laws on gender equality were inconsistently enforced, and many traditional courts continued to ignore the rights of women regarding family law and inheritance. Juveniles were afforded few rights in the traditional justice system.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
Both the central government judiciary and customary law courts handled civil complaints. Corruption influenced some cases and judgments, and awards were inconsistent. Individuals and organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights abuses through regular access to domestic courts. Individuals may also seek redress from regional bodies, such as the Economic Community of West African States Court of Justice.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution and law prohibit such actions. There were, however, reports the government used technology to surveil a journalist and opposition activist (see section 1.d., Arbitrary Arrest–case of Sylvia Blyden).
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press, and the government generally respected these rights, but there were exceptions.
Freedom of Speech: On July 23, parliament approved the Public Order Amendment Act 2020 decriminalizing seditious libel and slander. President Bio signed the amended act on August 14. Media organizations and NGOs welcomed the amendment, which repealed part of the Public Order Act of 1965, a law previously used to impede witness testimony in anticorruption and other cases, and to target persons making statements the government considered against the national interest.
The HRCSL and Amnesty International reported no arrests or detentions in relation to freedom of expression.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Most registered newspapers were independent, although several were associated with political parties. Newspapers openly and routinely criticized the government and its officials as well as opposition parties. While independent broadcast media generally operated without restriction, there were exceptions. International media could operate freely but were required to register with the Ministry of Information and Communications and the government-funded Independent Media Commission to obtain a license.
Violence and Harassment: There were reports authorities used violence and harassment against journalists. In April Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces personnel beat two journalists, Fayia Amara Fayia and Stanley Sahr Jimmy, after Fayia photographed a COVID-19 quarantine center. The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) condemned the incident and urged the military and police to investigate. Authorities charged the journalists with riotous conduct, and the case continued at the High Court in Kenema.
Libel/Slander Laws: Parliament on July 23 approved the Public Order Amendment Act, which also decriminalized criminal and seditious libel. President Bio signed the amended act on August 14. According to the SLAJ, during the year at least six journalists were arrested under criminal libel law on allegations of defamation and libel.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
In a March 24 address, President Julius Maada Bio declared a 12-month state of emergency due to COVID-19. Parliament approved the measure, which granted the president broad powers to maintain peace and order, including mandating restrictions on movement. The March state of emergency declaration related to COVID-19 included restrictions on assembly, as it banned meetings of more than 100 persons.
In a few cases, police used excessive force when dealing with demonstrators and used public order law to deny requests for protests and demonstrations (see section 1.a.).
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of both men and women. In February 2019, President Bio declared a State of Emergency against rape and other sexual violence. In September 2019 parliament passed new legislation that raised the penalty for those convicted of rape to a minimum of 15 years’ imprisonment (see also section 6, Sexual Exploitation of Children). Previously, a conviction was punishable by between five- and 15-years’ imprisonment, although many offenders were given lesser prison terms. Rape was common and viewed more as a societal norm than a criminal problem. The law specifically prohibits spousal rape. Indictments were rare, especially in rural areas. The lack of an effective judicial system continued to foster impunity for offenders, which helped perpetuate violence against women. During the year, the Family Support Unit (FSU) within the SLP reported increased cases of rape and sexual assault.
On July 24, President Bio launched the country’s first Sexual Offences Model Court with 20 judges to address sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) cases. In his statement, Bio stated the special sexual offenses court is aimed at addressing the increasing number of SGBV cases in the country. On July 9, President Bio announced a “One-Stop Centers Initiative” piloted in six government hospitals across the country, where SGBV survivors can access medical, psychosocial, and legal support.
According to the local NGO Rainbo Initiative, there were 1,272 sexual assaults reported in five districts with 217 pregnancies between January and May. Rainbo Initiative further estimated 3,701 sexual assault cases, 598 pregnancies resulting from assaults, and 255 successful prosecutions in 2019.
Violent acts against women, especially wife beating and spousal rape, were common and often surrounded by a culture of silence. Conviction of domestic violence is punishable by a substantial fine and two years’ imprisonment. Survivors seldom reported SGBV due to their fear of social stigma and retaliation. The HRCSL observed that the incidence of gender-based violence continued to rise while arrests and convictions of perpetrators were negligible. A psychosocial worker of the NGO Rainbo Center blamed the structure of the justice system and lengthy court processes for the delay in accessing justice. First Lady Fatima Bio and NGOs such as the Rainbo Center actively promoted public awareness, calling on men to refrain from violence against women.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law does not prohibit FGM/C for women or girls. According to a 2017 UNICEF report, 86.1 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 have undergone a form of FGM/C. FGM/C is considered a traditional rite of passage into womanhood. UNICEF polling indicated that societal support for FGM/C remained strong in the country. FGM/C was excluded from the First Lady’s “Hands Off Our Girls” Campaign in 2019 that called for an end to child marriage and sexual violence. In December 2019 approximately 70 initiates aged above 19 underwent the Bondo secret society ceremony without the ritual circumcision as part of an initiative of the NGO Amazonian Initiative Movement. This alternative rite of passage was preceded by dozens of cutters (soweis) handing in their knives to demonstrate their commitment to refraining from cutting. The soweis signed a declaration against practicing FGM/C, preceded by the 2015 MOU the local soweis signed with the UN Population Fund to abandon harmful practices including FGM/C.
Sexual Harassment: The law criminalizes sexual harassment, but authorities did not always effectively enforce it. It is unlawful to make unwanted sexual advances, repeatedly follow or pursue others against their will, initiate repeated and unwanted communications with others, or engage in any other “menacing” behavior. Conviction of sexual harassment is punishable by a substantial fine or imprisonment not exceeding three years. No reliable data was available on the prevalence of sexual harassment.
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, timing, and spacing of their children, and they have the right to manage their reproductive health free from coercion, discrimination, or violence, although they sometimes lacked the information and means to enjoy these rights.
Religious, social, and cultural barriers adversely limited access to contraception. The law prohibits individuals younger than the age of consent from access to contraception. The availability of contraception at health facilities varied, and individuals did not have consistent access to their specific method of choice. The inaccessibility of contraceptives for adolescents contributed to the adolescent birth rate of 101 births per 1,000 girls ages 15-19. The proportion of women of reproductive age who had their need for family planning satisfied with modern methods was 57 percent. Modern contraceptive prevalence rates for women and girls ages15 to 49 was 21 percent.
The government established “one-stop centers” for survivors of gender-based violence in six districts across the country in government referral hospitals in Moyamba, Kailahun, Pujehun, Kabala, Port Loko, and the King Harman Road Government Referral Hospital. These centers provided comprehensive care including psychosocial, legal, medical, and shelter assistance to survivors of sexual violence, including access to sexual and reproductive health services.
No legal barriers or government policies hindered access to safe and quality maternal health-care services, including access to skilled health attendants during pregnancy and childbirth, but social or cultural barriers sometimes limited such access. According to the UNFPA, maternal mortality rate in 2017 was 1,120 per 100,000 live births, and 87 percent of births were attended by a skilled health attendant.
Major factors in the high maternal death rate included poverty; distance to medical facilities; lack of access to sufficient information about availability of health-care services; inadequate and poor-quality services, especially in remote settings; cultural beliefs and practices; early marriages and childbearing; delay in decision making to seek health-care service; and malnutrition.
According to the Ministry of Health, FGM/C increased the risk of childbirth complications, maternal death, and infertility–in addition to posing health risks associated with the procedure itself.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Discrimination: The law provides for the same legal status and rights for men and women under family, labor, property, and inheritance law. Women continued to experience discriminatory practices. Their rights and positions are largely contingent on customary law and the ethnic group to which they belong. The law provides for both Sierra Leonean fathers and mothers to confer nationality to children born abroad. The law provides for equal remuneration for equal work without discrimination based on gender. Both spouses may acquire property in their own right, and women may obtain divorces without being forced to relinquish dowries.
Authorities at the Ministry of Social Welfare Affairs reported that women faced widespread societal discrimination, particularly in matters of marriage, divorce, property, and inheritance, which are guided by customary law in all areas except Freetown. Formal law applies in customary as well as formal courts, but customary judges had limited or no legal training and often were unaware of formal law or chose to ignore it. Women’s rights and status under customary law varied significantly depending upon the ethnic group to which they belonged, but such rights and status were routinely inferior to those of men. Under customary law, women’s status in society is equal to that of a minor. Women were frequently perceived to be the property of their husbands and to be inherited on his death with his other property.
Discrimination occurred in access to credit, equal pay for similar work, and the ownership and management of a business. Women did not have equal access to education, economic opportunities, health facilities, or social freedoms. In rural areas, women performed much of the subsistence farming and had little opportunity for formal education (see also section 7.d.).
The Ministry of Social Welfare has a mandate to protect the rights of women, but most international and domestic NGOs asserted the ministry did not have the resources, infrastructure, and support of other ministries to handle its assigned projects effectively. The ministry routinely relied on the assistance of international organizations and NGOs to help combat women’s rights abuses.