Prepare the gallows: Sierra Leone and the death penalty

For the first time since its civil war, Sierra Leone might be about to execute someone.

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Victoria Johnson says she is happy that those convicted of killing her son have been sentenced to death. But will the sentence be carried out? [Cooper Inveen/Al Jazeera]

Freetown, Sierra Leone – On the afternoon of September 8, the rain fell heavy on the courthouse roof as Justice Alusine Sesay’s gavel cracked like thunder.

The year-long trial for the murder of Sydney Buckle had come to an end, and Baimba Moi Foray – one of Sierra Leone’s most famous witch doctors – was sentenced to death by hanging, along with his bodyguard, Foday Kamara.

The crowd erupted.

Nobody has been executed in Sierra Leone since 1998, when, at the height of the country’s brutal civil war, 24 soldiers were publicly executed by firing squad.

“In that moment, when they sentenced him, my memory went back to when I first knew Sydney was dead,” recalled Buckle’s mother, Victoria Johnson. “And yet, I was happy – very, very happy – because I knew that justice had prevailed.”

Johnson’s certainty was short-lived as the sentencing has ignited a countrywide debate over whether Sierra Leone should revive executions.

Foray’s fate has been obscured by calls from human rights groups to maintain a moratorium on the death penalty, but the government is struggling to appeal to a justice-hungry public gripped by a recent surge in violent crime.

The ethics of the death penalty have returned to the forefront of public discourse for the first time in nearly two decades, and whether Foray goes to the gallows or not, international organisations, civil society groups and human rights lawyers say the case is likely to set a precedent that will shape the future of judicial executions in Sierra Leone.

“A country stops using the death penalty for a couple of years then all of a sudden they start using it again – that worries us, especially in countries with violent pasts,” said Solomon Sogbandi, the executive director of Amnesty International’s Sierra Leone office. “Because President [Ernest Bai] Koroma said he wasn’t going to kill anyone during his regime, a commitment he has made internationally, we hope they won’t carry out these executions. But that’s not to say they won’t happen.”

READ MORE: Report finds ‘alarming rise’ in executions in 2015

‘That man deserves to die’

More widely known as DJ Cleff, Sydney Buckle was one of Sierra Leone’s most popular on-air radio personalities.

The day after Buckle attended a birthday party at Foray’s house in June 2015, his body was found in an alley two miles away wrapped in cloth with three toes missing, a punctured eye and a large hole in his neck. The case grabbed national attention.

We can't let lawlessness take over ... We need to have a strong head on our justice system, and I honestly think that maybe if they killed those two guys we would see an end to all this violence

by Alhaji Ben Jalloh, building contractor

Foray had been something of a local celebrity as both a socialite and a lavishly paid personal witch doctor to high-rolling clients.

During the trial, Sulaiman Bah, Sierra Leone’s director of public prosecution, suggested that the mutilation of Buckle’s body was synonymous with certain traditional rituals. Foray chose not to testify, but rumours of black magic spread rapidly over social media and talk radio.

The prosecution produced no direct witnesses against either Foray or Kamara during the trial and Justice Sesay acknowledged in his verdict that the case was built solely on circumstantial evidence, such as the cloth Buckle was wrapped in having come from Foray’s house.

But by the day of his sentencing, Foray had lost virtually all public support, and a recent increase in gang violence throughout the country’s urban areas had further turned public sympathy towards hanging both men, with proponents believing that it would help deter other would-be murderers and violent criminals.

“In my honest opinion, that man deserves to die,” said Alhaji Ben Jalloh, a building contractor living in east Freetown. “We can’t let lawlessness take over, so something must be done soon. We need to have a strong head on our justice system, and I honestly think that maybe if they killed those two guys we would see an end to all this violence. They need to be made examples.”

Three days after the sentencing, Palo Conteh, Sierra Leone’s minister of internal affairs, publicly ordered staff to clean the gallows at Freetown’s central prison ahead of the executions. The following day, his comment ran on the covers of many of Freetown’s largest newspapers, boosting the expectations of a public seemingly largely in favour of the death penalty.

Yet since Conteh’s comment was publicised, the government has largely backed away from the issue. Sierra Leone’s attorney general, director of public prosecution, deputy minister of justice and presidential spokesman all declined comment for this story, beyond reasserting President Koroma’s pledge not to conduct any executions during his time in office.

READ MORE: Pope Francis calls for end to death penalty

‘I am against it’

The current constitution, composed in 1991 at the onset of Sierra Leone’s civil war by leaders of a military coup, allows for the death penalty to be invoked in cases of murder, robbery with aggression, mutiny and treason.

The Truth and Reconciliation Report released at the end of the war in 2004 called for the punishment to be abolished, and although both the current and previous administration have claimed abolition as a goal, no visible efforts to repeal the policy have occurred since.

Recommendations made by a constitutional review committee in 1997 were never implemented, and the current administration’s own constitutional review process has been repeatedly postponed.

I respect this country's justice system ... but it's our failure to properly investigate that stops me from being able to support any kind of death penalty

by Ishmael Philip Mammie, Freetown lawyer

Koroma’s pledge will expire when his second five-year term ends in 2018. Then there are the other prisoners.

Despite the president’s moratorium, there were already at least 24 people living on death row by the time Foray and Kamara were sentenced in Freetown’s High Court – all of them sentenced to death in rural towns over the course of President Koroma’s current term.

Thirteen people – including four 18-year-olds charged with murder and a 22-year-old charged with armed robbery – were given death sentences in 2015, all in two rural northern cities.

Executing Foray and Kamara would force the government to also choose whether to execute the others on death row, a decision complicated by Sierra Leone’s weak and highly centralised criminal investigation system.

“I respect this country’s justice system, so I respect the verdicts given by its courts, but it’s our failure to properly investigate that stops me from being able to support any kind of death penalty,” said Ishmael Philip Mammie, a Freetown lawyer building a reputation for taking on clients facing execution. He’s also Foray’s legal council.

READ MORE: Sierra Leone’s forgotten child soldiers

“We live in a place where basic means of investigating crime scenes like dusting for prints almost never happen. Most officers don’t have the resources to do these things. Mistakes are made in systems far superior to ours, but until we can significantly improve the investigation system across the country and really make sure, I don’t care that [the death penalty] is in our books – I am against it.”

Mammie also rejected the notion that the punishment could be used to deter gang violence.

Amnesty’s Sogbandi believes the biggest obstacle to abolition isn’t the criminals or the government, but the general public.

“At its core, the death penalty is held up by parts of the Criminal Procedure Act that would be difficult to just amend or throw out,” Sogbandi said. “The most best way to do it would be through a referendum, but I don’t see one ever passing with most of the public feeling the way they presently do.”

Regardless of the death penalty’s future in Sierra Leone, those whose lives have been irreparably altered by the people facing it will naturally thirst for some semblance of justice. Victoria Johnson, however, is indifferent to the controversy. She says the only justice she needed lay with a “guilty” verdict.

“Sydney was my biggest helper, our breadwinner, and I don’t like to talk about him, to bring my memory back,” she said. “But I do want to say that I give glory to God for the justice that has already prevailed. Whatever the authority chooses, I know it will be the right way.”

READ MORE: Sierra Leone’s child prisoners – “I don’t want to come out a monster”

Source: Al Jazeera