Death Penalty: Abolish or Commit to the Moratorium

John Baimba Sesay

Countries the world over continue to make great strides in abolishing the death penalty.  The AU as a body has seen greater strides in recent years.  For instance, the Death Penalty Project (DPP), a London based legal action charity that uses the law to protect prisoners facing execution and to promote fail criminal justice systems says, the AU  today has 20 abolitionist states for all crimes- States where the death penalty has been abolished. Statistics further show, there are 18 abolitionists in practice in the AU- that is, States where the death penalty is implemented but no executions have been carried out for at least 10 years and have a policy or established practice of not carrying out executions.  

Kenya last executed in 1987.  In 2009, it commuted all death sentences to life imprisonment, a decision that was believed to have impacted thousands of death row inmates.  By the end of 2017, that country’s Supreme Court declared as unconstitutional, the mandatory death penalty. At the regional (ECOWAS) and sub-regional (MRU) levels, countries have embarked on efforts that have signaled a positive push to abolishing the death penalty. Guinea, which had been an abolitionist country for years, applying a moratorium on executions since 2002, adopted, in 2016 a new Criminal Code, removing the death penalty from its statute books for ordinary crimes and in 2017, abolished the death penalty for all crimes.

The Gambia and Burkina Faso have also reportedly made important strides towards abolition of the death penalty, according to Amnesty International. The Gambia this year commuted the death sentences of a number of prisoners to life imprisonment. Burkina Faso in 2018 abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes only by adopting a new penal code, paving way for “more credible, equitable, accessible and effective justice in the application of criminal law.”

Moratorium on Execution:

Sierra Leone last carried out execution in October 1998 when a firing squad publicly executed 24 military officers for allegedly taking part in a military coup. It should be stated that the implementation of the death penalty in the country has always been based on political motivation, much as it remains mandatory for murder convictions.  

As of May 2019, the country has 50 death row inmates, including 48 men and two women. By 2014, the country committed itself before the United Nations Committee against Torture to abolishing capital punishment in law and to commuting her last death row prisoners to life imprisonment. This notwithstanding, dozens still remain on death row with more sentences in 2018. This is a worrying development.

There is no linkage between death penalty as punishment and increase or otherwise in crime rate. To suggest that death penalty serves as a deterrent is unacceptable. One unquestionable fact is death penalty, once carried out, is irreversible. When once one is executed, no amount of new evidence would get back the life. But where one is committed to serve long jail term and provision is made for an appeal, new evidence and supplementary information may help a convict leave prison. In most third world countries, the death penalty is mostly for the poor and vulnerable people that have difficulties to access good lawyers; with a good lawyer, an accused hardly gets convicted of murder; chances are a reduction to manslaughter.

With Sierra Leone’s apparent weak and challenged criminal justice system, starting with police investigation to prosecution, the stages to the entire criminal justice system are troubled with obstacles. Besides, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recognizes that “Respect for human dignity and human rights must begin with respect for human life. Everyone has the right to life. A society that accords the highest respect for human life is unlikely to turn on itself…” The Commission thus recommended the abolition of the death penalty and the repeal of all laws authorizing the use of capital punishment.  

The country also remains a member of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which recognizes right to life and this further places the country on an irrevocable path towards complete eradication of the death penalty “…in the foreseeable future.” The closure of the death penalty will therefore mark an important and symbolic departure from the past.  It also would help improve on our country’s international image and lend credence to our core values to respecting the right to life.

Right Groups:

There have been right groups’ campaigns on abolition of the death penalty in the country.  AdvocAid is an access to justice group, dealing mostly with woman in a holistic framework.  For them, girls and women in Sierra Leone deserve access to justice, something they achieve through the delivery of free legal aid, a major component of their work. 

“Death penalty is a concern to our work”, says Rebecca Wood, Executive Director of AdvocAid. They have been working with the Death Penalty Project. It was on the invitation of AdvocAid that Saul Lehrfreund, Executive Director and Amanda Clift-Mathews, Legal Director and In-House Counsel visited Sierra Leone in June, 2019 to have a view of the country’s justice sector especially its criminal justice system. 

For AdvocAid, removing the mandatory aspect for even murder and replacing it with a Judge’s discretion and the Chief Justice issuing guidance on sentencing could be a good start. The call for an end to the death penalty goes beyond the psychological torture attached to the existence of such a law in the law books of any nation.  There is the sad reality of possible wrongful conviction.

The Death Penalty Project (DPP) is of the view, that the risk that innocent people will be executed can never be removed altogether. It says, in 2017, there were at least 55 exonerations of prisoners under sentence of death from six countries around the world, representing just cases “investigated and innocence was established.” DPP strongly argues that fair trial violations could also lead to arbitrary executions, citing, as key factors, amongst others:

  • Use of forced confessions
  • Excessive and unjustified delays in trial or appeal processes
  • General lack of fairness of criminal process and lack of impartial courts
  • Lack of effective representation during all stages of criminal proceedings (from interrogation to appeal)

Amnesty International has for decades been leading the campaign against the death penalty in Sierra Leone. The organization believes such a law is not fashionable in a modern world. “A bad law is a bad law” said Solomon Sogbandi, country director for Amnesty International, arguing further, that “Over 80% of countries have moved towards abolition” not knowing why Sierra Leone still have such law.

Like AdvocAid, Amnesty International believes, the current government should commit itself to abolishing or at least, to the existing moratorium especially not knowing their posture. “The former government did well by signing a moratorium on the death penalty. However, we are afraid that it is still in our law books. Government can use any other punishment but the death penalty when someone commits a crime”, says Sogbani.

Political Commitment:

Ensuring a complete abolition would come with challenges, as it won’t come so easily or shortly. A referendum won’t get it because public opinion won’t give the needed support. What is required is the public will. Public opinion is vital but it should know there are human right issues attached to taking one’s life for a crime. There has not been any example of nation that has abolished such a law based on public opinion. Equally so, there isn’t any nation that has abolished such an obnoxious law and is later faced with public outcry.  What is required is the political will.

Government should therefore be thinking of abolishing or at least committing to the existing moratorium. Reviewing the Criminal Procedure Act of 1965 could also be encouraging.  In early 2019, the country made penetration of minors punishable by life imprisonment. Not forgetting the failure to have followed the required procedure to having such a law, what came out clear was the need for stiffer punishment other than execution.

Similarly, replacing the death penalty with life jail term should also provide an opportunity for offenders to know the severity of their crimesRight to life should not be denied any individual. This is fundamental and must be respected. We must join other nations in moving ahead with time by either abolishing or at least committing to an existing moratorium on death penalty. All this needs is the political will.

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