By Sabrina Mahtani, Amnesty International West Africa researcher
“I felt like it was me they had killed that day,” says Asatu, reaching for a piece of multi-coloured cloth to wipe away her tears. Exactly two years ago today, her 16-year-old son was shot by the police as he came home from school.
She rushed to town after receiving a phone call and found her son’s body lying in an omolanke (a wheel barrow). After he was shot dead during the demonstration several young people had carried his body to the Town Chief to show him the reality of the police actions. Such deaths happen all too frequently in Sierra Leone.
Mariama’s son was also shot dead that day by the police. “My son was 17 years old,” she says, her voice breaking. “He loved football and music. He was attending Kabala Secondary School. This year, he should have taken his senior secondary school exam.
“On the day he was killed, I told him to go and buy me something. Later there was panic ,tear gas. People running everywhere. Someone told me they [the police] had shot him. I fainted.” Often the justification for the police’s disproportionate use of force against demonstrators is that their demonstration was “illegal”. But obtaining permission from the police is often impossible—and not even a proper legal requirement.
Take what happened in Kabala, a small hilly town in northern Sierra Leone. Two years ago to the day (16 August), young people from the town decided to hold a peaceful protest over government plans to move the construction of a planned “youth village” from their district to another district. The proposed youth village would have offered training and trade opportunities for young people in the area, a beacon of hope in a country with high rates of youth unemployment.
Youth leaders requested permission from the police to hold the demonstration but were told they had to request this 21 days in advance. There are no provisions in Sierra Leone’s laws—that already fall short of international standards on the right to peaceful assembly—to require this.
Youth groups decided to meet the next day to discuss what to do. Eyewitnesses told me that the police fired tear gas outside the meeting venue to disrupt the meeting and stop the youth from protesting. People started to run, scared by the loud noise and overpowering smell. Eventually some young people started to throw stones at police officers. The police fired bullets back at them, in violation of international standards which state that firearms must never be used to disperse a crowd and should only be used when there is a real and imminent threat to life.
Four men were also injured by gunshot wounds. Brima was shot in the back. He struggles to walk and often uses a wheelchair. “I used to do construction work,” he told me. “Now I can’t do anything.” He has not received any compensation from the government or any assistance.
The Independent Police Complaints Board (IPCB) investigated the incident and named police officers, suspected of being involved in the shooting, that they recommended be criminally investigated. Yet two years on there is still no justice. The officers have just been transferred to another town. I met one of the officers and found out that, instead of facing disciplinary action, he had been promoted. “I want to see the police officers who did this go to court,” Brima told me.
The people of Kabala are not alone. Across Sierra Leone, there are survivors of police brutality who are still waiting for justice or compensation. Abdulai, a university student, was shot during a student protest in the southern city of Bo last year. He lives with a bullet in his heart and needs medical treatment abroad but cannot afford it. He has not received any compensation and no police officer has been disciplined or investigated, let alone brought to justice in connection with his shooting despite recommendations made by the IPCB.
Survivors of police brutality are hopeful that they will finally receive justice and compensation.
“Maybe the new government will do something if there is enough pressure” a man who was shot during a workers’ protest in 2007, when two people were killed and at least nine people injured, told me. No police officer has been prosecuted in more than a decade over that incident despite recommendations by a government appointed Commission of Inquiry which named police officers to be investigated.
University student Abdulai, shot during the Bo student protest in 2017, wants to hold a peaceful march to commemorate the loss of young lives in Kabala and across the country in other protests. But he isn’t sure whether he will be granted permission by the police. Despite the risks, he told me he felt a duty to insist on demanding accountability: “I believe I have a duty to try and change things after my experience,” he told me. “To fight for justice so this will not keep happening.”
When I met him last month the newly appointed Deputy Attorney General, Abdulai Bangurah, told me that his office would look into the backlog of cases. The government has made fighting corruption a priority. Families who have lost loved ones hope that the authorities will place the same urgency on combating impunity in the police force – after all, security sector reform is meaningless unless there are consequences for the excessive use of force.