Sierra Leone: Reasons underlying prison riot amid COVID-19 case must be investigated

Following a riot which took place yesterday in Sierra Leone’s biggest correctional service centre, reportedly resulting in the death of at least a prison officer, Marta Colomer, Amnesty International West and Central Africa Deputy Director, said:

“The first case of COVID-19 was reported in Freetown’s central prison on 28 April, causing alarm among people detained therein who live in severely cramped conditions. There have been some restrictive measures imposed by the authorities, including the prohibition of visits by their relatives.

Yesterday’s riot shows that prisoners are becoming increasingly desperate at the government’s inaction to protect their right to health. There must be a prompt, thorough, impartial and effective investigation into the reasons that led to the riot and the heavy-handed response from prison guards who used live ammunition.
Marta Colomer, Amnesty International West and Central Africa Deputy Director

“Prisoners are concerned about getting enough food after the prohibition on visits, as well as the spread of the virus and their ability to take preventive measures against COVID-19. 

“Yesterday’s riot shows that prisoners are becoming increasingly desperate at the government’s inaction to protect their right to health. There must be a prompt, thorough, impartial and effective investigation into the reasons that led to the riot and the heavy-handed response from prison guards who used live ammunition. The use of force even resulted in the death of at least one prison officer who was reportedly hit by a stray bullet.

“We are calling on the Sierra Leone authorities to put their promises to release hundreds of detainees into action – unless overcrowding is eased and conditions of detention improved, there is a risk of further riots and infections. They should release all those held in pre-trial detention and consider the release of other prisoners at risk, such as older people and those with underlying medical conditions.”


Background

The first case of COVID-19 was reported in Freetown’s correctional service centre on 28 April 2020.

It is not clear what started yesterday’s riot, but it became violent after inmates set fire to walls. Security guards shot live ammunition in response. According to information received by Amnesty International, a prison officer was hit by a stray bullet, resulting in his death.

To commemorate Sierra Leone’s Independence Day, President Julius Maada Bio announced the release of 235 prisoners nationwide on 27 April, but as yet there is no confirmation that they have been released. 

Freetown’s prison was originally built for a capacity of less than 300 prisoners but today it has more than 1,000 inmates.

Even in times of emergency, law enforcement officials may only use force that is necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate objective, and must minimize harm and damage. International standards on the use of force require that intentional lethal force is only used where it is strictly unavoidable to protect another life from an imminent threat.