Sierra Leone Avoid use of excessive force in the lead-up to elections and protect civic space

Sierra Leone’s authorities must commit to avoiding the use of unlawful or excessive force during campaign assemblies and protect citizens’ right to freedom of expression in the lead-up to the presidential and general elections, said Amnesty International ahead of the launch of the official campaign period on 4 February.

While 2018 has begun with few major incidents, the call for vigilance comes as the organization highlights a history of excessive force used to stop protests, the threat to monitor people using social media and the passing of concerning regulations on NGO operations. Amnesty International and over 40 civil society organizations are also calling on all political parties to sign a pledge committing to uphold key rights and freedoms if elected. So far 14 parties have done so.

Next month’s elections in Sierra Leone are another landmark moment, as the country recovers from the devastating Ebola outbreak, and there is no doubt that there will be vibrant rallies and passionate debate
Sabrina Mahtani, Amnesty International West Africa researcher

“Next month’s elections in Sierra Leone are another landmark moment, as the country recovers from the devastating Ebola outbreak, and there is no doubt that there will be vibrant rallies and passionate debate,” said Sabrina Mahtani, Amnesty International West Africa researcher.

“There is an essential role for the authorities to play in ensuring that every Sierra Leonean can participate in these elections, speaking out freely and assembling peacefully, in full safety.”

With major campaign rallies planned by all parties across the country over the coming month, the use of firearms to police assemblies is an area of particular concern. For example, in March 2017, two students were injured and a 16 year old teenager was shot dead during a student protest in the city of Bo. In August 2016, two people were shot dead and several injured by police in Kabala during a protest against the loss of a planned youth training centre.

Recognizing the dangers, the outgoing Inspector General of Police, Francis Munu, told stakeholders at a Parliamentary Committee for Internal Affairs in March 2017 that the police would not deploy lethal force to public order incidents. Amnesty International is calling on the new Inspector General, Richard Moigbe, to affirm this statement with an official declaration.

“Given the pattern of excessive use of police force in Sierra Leone during assemblies or episodes of civil unrest, the police need to make sure that these hotly contested elections are not marred by state violence. We call on the Inspector General of Police to publicly declare that his units will not use excessive force to police assemblies and rallies ahead of the elections,” said Sabrina Mahtani.

Principle 14 of the Basic Principles on the use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials states that “in the dispersal of violent assemblies, law enforcement officials may use firearms only when less dangerous means are not practicable and only to the minimum extent necessary.”

Threats to People Using Social Media

2018 is set to be the first election in Sierra Leone where social media will play a prominent role and freedom of expression online must be protected. In October last year, the National Telecommunications Agency (NATCOM) announced that, while it would not ban the use of social media during the elections, it had set aside $150,000 to monitor it. NATCOM also publicly claimed to have been in touch with Facebook to “track down the mischief makers”, and told Amnesty International that the contact had been made in order to block problematic Facebook and WhatsApp accounts, and to provide details of originators of social media messages who would be referred to the relevant authorities.

Sierra Leone, in the past, has arrested people based on their use of social media. For example, on 16 November 2016 a university student, Theresa Mbomaya, was arrested for forwarding a message in a student WhatsApp group that promoted a forthcoming demonstration and which also implied that any vehicle trying to disrupt it could be set on fire. She was charged with incitement and was eventually acquitted and discharged on 23 January 2017.

In a meeting in December 2017, however, representatives of Facebook told Amnesty International that no such agreement had been made, and confirmed that content could only be removed if it breached Facebook’s community standards, and user data could only be provided following their law enforcement request guidelines.

Sierra Leone Civic Space Manifesto Sierra Leone Civic Space Manifesto
Amnesty International and over 40 civil society organizations are also calling on all candidates to place the protection of human rights at the heart of the electoral campaign by endorsing a ‘Civic Space Manifesto’

Amnesty International and over 40 civil society organizations are also calling on all candidates to place the protection of human rights at the heart of the electoral campaign by endorsing a ‘Civic Space Manifesto’. This document, launched in December 2017, lays out four key principles that Sierra Leone’s future leaders should sign up to, such as freedom for people to express their views, organize peaceful protests and for human rights defenders to be given space and protection to do their work.

So far, 14 out of 17 registered political parties have signed up and Amnesty International is calling on all remaining parties to endorse the document and adopt the principles as part of their party manifestos during the official campaigning period.

One of the calls in the Civic Space Manifesto is to avoid any new laws or policies that would restrict the work of civil society organizations. Amnesty International has received information that a policy on NGO regulations was passed in December 2017 although the government has not released an official copy or provided any further information. Civil society groups have raised concern as the draft regulations were unduly restrictive on NGO operations. Amnesty International calls on the government to be transparent about this process and uphold the right to freedom of association.

It is critical that those who are contesting to lead our country ensure that civic space is protected
Solomon Sogbandi, Director of Amnesty International Sierra Leone

“It is critical that those who are contesting to lead our country ensure that civic space is protected. Now the official campaign period is beginning, we are calling on all presidential candidates and parties to sign the Civic Space Manifesto and commit to enabling people and civil society groups in Sierra Leone to participate fully and freely in civic life, during and after the election period,” said Solomon Sogbandi, Director of Amnesty International Sierra Leone.