Sierra Leone 2020
Security forces used excessive force against protesters. Provisions of the Public Order Act (POA) used to criminalize freedom of expression were repealed. The ban on pregnant girls attending school and sitting exams was lifted. Discrimination against women and LGBTI people persisted and sexual violence against women and girls remained widespread. Health workers and prisoners were at particular risk from COVID-19.
The political tensions between the ruling Sierra Leone People's Party and the All People's Congress (APC), the main opposition party, persisted. Measures taken to fight the COVID-19 pandemic led to violations of economic, social, civil and political rights.
Freedom of expression
In May, Sylvia Blyden, publisher of the Awareness Times newspaper and a leading APC member, was arrested and charged with, among other things, seditious and defamatory libel, conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and publication of false news for alleging, on social media, that former Defence Minister Alfred Paolo Conteh had been ill-treated in detention. Her case was brought on the same charges before a magistrate court and the High Court. In July, the High Court dismissed the charges against her on the basis of insufficient evidence.
In July, Parliament repealed Part V of the 1965 POA, used to prosecute people on defamation and sedition charges for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Consequently, all charges against Sylvia Blyden before the magistrate court were dropped in November.
On 9 December, 17 environmental and land rights activists, members of the Malen Affected Land Owners Association, were discharged after a prolonged trial which followed their arrest in early 2019 after a land rights demonstration.
Excessive use of force
Concerns about public order management by the security forces continued.
In April, during the lockdown period imposed to control the spread of COVID-19, there were multiple allegations of police brutality on social media, notably against those who went out for essentials like food and water.
According to the Freetown Correctional Centre’s July report, 30 prisoners and one correction officer were killed, and dozens of people injured during a riot at the Pademba Road prison in the capital, Freetown, on 29 April. The prisoners were protesting against overcrowding and COVID-19 restrictions. The report concluded that the military used reasonable force to control the riot while NGOs called for an independent investigation into the incident.
Between 17 and 18 July, security forces used excessive force against protesters at a demonstration, which turned violent in Makeni, a city in the Northern Province. According to NGO reports, six protesters were killed in the demonstration against the government’s decision to relocate an electricity power generator to another town.
Women and girls’ rights
Sexual violence continued unabated. The Rainbo Initiative NGO said it received over 1,000 reports of sexual assault between January and May. Survivors of sexual violence continued to struggle to access justice, health care, legal aid and counselling. In July, the first Sexual Offences Model Court was established to expedite sexual offences-related trials and reduce the backlog of cases. A one-stop centre for sexual violence survivors was established, providing psychosocial support and treatment.
On 30 March, the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education announced with immediate effect the lifting of the ban on pregnant girls attending school and sitting exams. In 2019, the ECOWAS Court of Justice had ruled that the ban should be revoked.
In December, the President launched the first Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Policy, partly to normalize the gender balance within the political process.
Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people
Male consensual same-sex sexual relations remained a criminal offence under the Offences Against the Person Act, carrying a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. LGBTI people continued to suffer discrimination and stigmatization.
Right to health
In April, the government pledged that health workers’ wages would reflect the risks to their health posed by COVID-19. According to UNICEF, health workers accounted for 10.2% of all COVID-19 cases as of July. On 2 July, doctors stopped treating COVID-19 patients because they had not received compensation or PPE. On 28 July, the government announced that health workers would benefit from a health insurance scheme, and that families of health workers who died of COVID-19 would be financially compensated.
Detention facilities were chronically overcrowded and the health risks to inmates were exacerbated by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. On 27 April, the President announced that 235 prisoners nationwide would be pardoned to ease overcrowding and reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection. The decision was delayed following the prison riot in April two days later, but on 21 July, 153 inmates were released.
Right to a fair trial
On 19 March, former minister Alfred Paolo Conteh was arrested after he entered the State House in Freetown carrying a gun. Two others were also arrested for the incident. They were detained at Pademba Road prison but on 29 April, following the riot there, they were transferred to an unknown location without access to their lawyers for several days. In July, Alfred Paolo Conteh was acquitted of treason but convicted on two charges of possession of arms and sentenced to 24 months’ imprisonment by the High Court in Freetown. His appeal against the conviction remained pending at the end of the year.