Sierra Leone has made history, becoming the 110th country in the world to abolish the death penalty for all crimes.
London based NGO, The Death Penalty Project, has played a significant role in bringing about this momentous change.
The Abolition of the Death Penalty Act 2021, passed unanimously in Parliament this afternoon and eradicated capital punishment for persons convicted of crimes such as murder, aggravated robbery and treason, removing the threat of execution for those currently on death row. In a progressive move, instead of replacing the death penalty with a mandatory life sentence, Sierra Leone will move to a system of judicial discretion where judges are able to consider mitigating circumstances.
The Death Penalty Project has been working with local partner AdvocAid, in Sierra Leone, since 2007 and together have been instrumental in achieving abolition. As well as directly supporting women on death row and other vulnerable prisoners by providing free legal assistance, the organisations have actively engaged with key stakeholders and policy makers on the issue of capital punishment. By sharing expertise and knowledge, The Death Penalty Project has supported a shift in conversation from one that focuses on harsh punishments and retribution, to one centered around human rights and justice.
Sierra Leone has repeatedly reaffirmed its commitment to upholding international human rights standards and obligations and President Bio has been vocal about his commitment to abolition throughout his presidency, stating in December 2020 that: “my Government believes in the sanctity of life of every citizen.”
In March of this year, The Death Penalty Project, AdvocAid and Carolyn Hoyle, Professor of Criminology and Director of the Death Penalty Research Unit at the University of Oxford, formally set out the case for abolition to President Bio. To assist the process, the group presented an evidenced based perspective on the fundamental problems with the death penalty; not least, its arbitrariness, unavoidable room for error and its violation of international human rights standards. They also detailed how and why the death penalty should be replaced with a flexible humane system of imprisonment, instead of life without parole.
The Death Penalty Project’s engagement promoting abolition has been supported and endorsed by the wider international community; including the British High Commission, the EU delegation to Sierra Leone, the Embassy of Ireland and the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany. The diplomatic community as well as the Sierra Leone Bar Association have all played a key role in consigning capital punishment to the history books in Sierra Leone.
Although no executions had been carried out in the country since 1998, judges continued to impose the mandatory death penalty, handing down death sentences, as recently as this year. There are at least 78 people on death row, all of whom will now be removed and have their death sentences quashed.
Sierra Leone is the second country in Africa to abolish in 2021. It follows Malawi, which abolished in April, and joins West African neighbours, Guinea, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, and Togo.
In 2017, The Death Penalty Project and AdvocAid supported Betty* who was sentenced to death for the murder of her nine-month-old daughter.
In June 2016, Betty was walking near her home in Pujehun, with her daughter tied to her back by a lappa (fabric-tie) when she encountered some unknown men. The men began to chase her. Fearing for her safety, she tried to outrun them but slipped and fell backwards onto rocks on the path. She immediately got up and continued running until she reached her town where she realised her daughter was no longer with her. The baby was later found with head injuries on the path where Betty had fallen but did not survive.
Betty was taken to the police station and informed of her daughter’s death. Interviewed in Mende, a language she barely spoke, without the presence of a lawyer, her statement was recorded in English, and then ‘interpreted’ by the police into Mende. In the statement, Betty allegedly confessed to the murder of her child. Unable to read or write, she was instructed to sign the confession with a thumbprint, the only evidence against her at trial.
The first time Betty saw a lawyer was at her hurried court proceedings. There was only one eyewitness presented, who supported her account of falling on the rocky path, and a pathologist agreed that the baby could have died from the fall. Notwithstanding, in October 2017, Betty was convicted of murder and received the mandatory sentence; death by hanging.
The Death Penalty Project and Advocaid, assisted Betty in appealing her conviction, arguing that her right to a fair trial had been violated. She also sought to challenge the constitutionality of the mandatory death sentence imposed on her. While the appeal was pending, Betty remained on death row, many miles from her children. Due to this distance and the stigma surrounding her incarceration, neither her family nor anyone from her community ever visited her. However, in January 2020, after three and a half years in custody and more than two on death row, Betty received a full pardon.
Professor Carolyn Hoyle, Director of the Death Penalty Research Unit at the University of Oxford said: “Having spent two decades gathering evidence to demonstrate that capital punishment is arbitrary, unsafe and degrading, it is a privilege to have an opportunity to draw on that research in working collaboratively with The Death Penalty Project and Advocaid to help to bring about abolition in Sierra Leone. Our efforts, and the support of embassies and lawyers within the country, demonstrate the importance of partnerships between international and local actors in improving human rights for all.”
Acting British High Commissioner, Alistair White said: “Congratulations to the Government of Sierra Leone, who have made this courageous step forward in abolishing the death penalty and my heartfelt compliments to his Excellency President Bio for his personal commitment.
It has been a monumental effort to get here today, working tirelessly across a number of years in partnerships across Government, the Bar Association, the International Community, Human Rights Defenders, the Human Rights Commission and Civil Society including our partners AdvocAid, The Death Penalty Project and UK-SL Pro Bono network.
The UK have been proud to stand in partnership to ensure promotion and protection of human rights for Sierra Leone and will continue to support Sierra Leone in access to justice following Presidential assent making abolition into law.”
Saul Lehrfreund, Co-Executive Director of The Death Penalty Project said:
“Betty’s case is a great example of why we do this work. She had been denied access to a lawyer, she had not been interviewed in her own language, she had been denied an independent interpreter and was later denied adequate time and facilities to prepare her defence. Betty was fortunate that this gross injustice was remedied when she eventually received a Presidential Pardon, but her case is a clear reminder that all justice systems are susceptible to error and wrongful convictions. These errors can be devastatingly irreversible where the threat of execution looms large, so we are delighted that Sierra Leone has taken this historic step to reject capital punishment and hope other governments around the world will swiftly follow suit.”
Notes to editors
Death Penalty Project
The Death Penalty Project (DPP) is a legal action NGO based at and supported by London legal firm, Simons Muirhead Burton LLP. For more than three decades, the DPP has worked to protect the human rights of those facing the death penalty.
For interview requests, quotes or more information please contact Joey Greene, Death Penalty Project, Communications Lead, 020 3206 2849 or [email protected]
AdvocAid is the only organisation in Sierra Leone that provides free legal representation for women and men on death row to challenge their convictions and death sentences. Since 2006, AdvocAid has secured the release of six women and three men on death row through appeals or presidential pardon applications.
For more information on AdvocAid or interview please contact: Rhiannon Davis [email protected]
Carolyn Hoyle is Professor of Criminology and Director of the Death Penalty Research Unit at the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford. For almost thirty years, she has taught and researched at the University of Oxford, with a particular focus on the death penalty. She is co-author – with Professor Roger Hood – of The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective, as well as various other books, reports, and academic journals on the death penalty and other criminological topics.
For more information or interview please contact Carolyn Hoyle [email protected]
A range of partners have worked together with The Death Penalty Project and AdvocAid to bring about change in Sierra Leone and support the political process, including:
- British High Commission
- UK Sierra Leone Pro Bono Network – For more information contact Richard Honey QC, Chairman of the steering group [email protected]
- Embassy of Ireland
- Sierra Leone Bar Association
- The United Nations delegation
- Delegation of the European Union to Sierra Leone
- Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany
- Sierra Leone Human Rights Commission
*A pseudonym is used to protect the individual’s identity as well as that of her family.
For more information on Betty’s case please visit our website https://dpproject.wpengine.com/story/betty/
Abolition around the world
The last three decades have witnessed an unprecedented rate of abolition of the death penalty around the world. Including Sierra Leone, 110 countries have now abolished the death penalty in law for all crimes, and a further eight countries have abolished the death penalty in law for ordinary crimes. A further 26 countries are classified as abolitionist in practice meaning 144 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.
Death penalty in Africa
In 2019, only five of 55 countries in the African Union carried out executions: Egypt, South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, and Botswana.
In 2019, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights determined that the mandatory death sentence violates the right to life and fair trial under the African Charter.
In other parts of the African Union, there has been marked progress towards abolition. The Central African Republic has recently made plans to establish a committee to examine a bill on the abolition of the death penalty within the National Assembly. In April 2019, Equatorial Guinea announced a draft law to abolish the death penalty, in 2020, Chad abolished the death penalty for all crimes and in late April 2021, the Supreme Court of Malawi declared the death penalty to be unconstitutional.