Sierra Leone

Executive Summary

Sierra Leone is a constitutional republic with a directly elected president and a unicameral legislature. In March 2018 the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) presidential candidate, Julius Maada Bio, won the presidential elections. Bio defeated Samura Kamara of the All People’s Congress (APC) party by a narrow margin. In January 2018 parliamentary elections, the APC won a plurality of the seats. Following a High Court ruling in May and by-elections, the SLPP maintained a majority with 59 seats, and the APC held 57 seats. Observers found these elections to be largely free and fair.

The Sierra Leone Police (SLP), which reports to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, is responsible for law enforcement and maintaining security within the country. The Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF) is responsible for external security but also has some domestic security responsibilities to assist police upon request in extraordinary circumstances. The RSLAF reports to the Ministry of Defense and National Security. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; criminal libel laws; official corruption; trafficking in persons; criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct; and child labor.

The government took some steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed abuses, but impunity persisted.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press, and the government generally respected these rights, but there were exceptions.

Freedom of Expression: Government officials used criminal slander provisions of the law to impede witness testimony in court cases, including anticorruption matters, and to target persons making statements that the government considered to be against the national interest. While there is no hate speech law, at times authorities used hate speech as a legal justification for restricting freedom of speech.

The HRCSL and Amnesty International reported no arrests or detentions in relation to freedom of expression.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Most registered newspapers were independent, although several were associated with political parties. Newspapers openly and routinely criticized the government and its officials as well as opposition parties. While independent broadcast media generally operated without restriction, there were exceptions. International media could operate freely but were required to register with the Ministry of Information and Communications and the government-funded Independent Media Commission to obtain a license. Acting beyond its mandate, the National Telecommunications Commission of Sierra Leone instructed all community radio stations to register as commercial stations, which requires the payment of a license fee. According to a media rights NGO, the fee requirement would force many stations, particularly in rural areas, to shut down.

Violence and Harassment: There were reports authorities used violence and harassment against journalists. In September presidential bodyguards physically assaulted two female journalists reporting on a sporting event at the national stadium, where President Bio was in attendance. The presidential guards reportedly threatened to shoot the journalists, and one of them was hospitalized. In October an investigative committee composed of civil society, media, and government officials recommended the removal of one presidential guard from the force, and the government complied. In October two opposition party members, including a former mayor of Freetown, were arrested and charged with the 2018 murder of journalist Ibrahim Samura (see also section 1.a.).

Libel/Slander Laws: The law punishes defamatory and seditious libel with imprisonment of up to three years. In September the cabinet voted to repeal the criminal libel law, but as of November, parliament had not approved the repeal. According to the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, during the year at least eight journalists were arrested under criminal libel law on allegations of defamation and libel.

In January police arrested and detained for two days the editor of Nightwatch newspaper, Emmanuel Thorli, for defamatory libel and released him on bail. Police investigators reportedly pressured the journalist to disclose the source of an article about the issuance of diplomatic passports to 300 relatives of President Bio.

On November 3, a comedian was arrested and charged under criminal libel law for allegedly defaming President Bio.

In contrast with 2018, there were no reports that the government restricted or disrupted access to the internet. There were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of assembly and association, and the government generally respected the right of freedom of association.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

Upon assuming office in 2018, President Bio introduced an executive order lifting the ban on public assembly, including Sunday trading, imposed by his predecessor.

In a few cases, police used excessive force when dealing with demonstrators and used public order law to deny requests for protests and demonstrations. On May 31, police fired teargas canisters into the headquarters building of the opposition APC, which resulted in several injuries.

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. On February 19, the Ministry of Labor and Social Security indefinitely suspended all overseas labor recruitment. Minister Edward King indicated that the rationale for this ban was to discourage trafficking in persons.

In-country Movement: There were reports that police officers operating security roadblocks nationwide as part of routine security checks often extorted money from motorists. The SLP banned unauthorized vehicular movement during an August 24 parliamentary by-election. All political parties, including the main opposition APC party, welcomed the restriction. The government continued to enforce a ban on civilian individuals and vehicular movement on the first Saturday of each month in order to support a nationwide cleaning exercise. This ban interfered with a religious group’s right to assemble for Saturday morning prayers.

In January members of a traditional secret society reportedly attacked an Ahmadiyya Muslim community in a village in the Kenema District to initiate forcibly three young men, an incident which ignited confrontation between the society and the Ahmadiyya community and led to the displacement of approximately 90 Ahmadiyya members to the provincial capital, Kenema city.

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. UNHCR worked with government authorities to develop standard operating procedures for refugee status determination.

More than 400 former Liberian refugees remained without legal status in the country. Their refugee status expired in 2017 when they became “residual caseloads” under UNHCR protection. They refused repatriation and integration and demanded resettlement in a third country. UNHCR denied their resettlement, citing the former refugees’ contradictory statements. The group applied for local national identification documents, but authorities had not acted on these applications as of year’s end.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: In August the National Electoral Commission organized a parliamentary election rerun in the Western Rural District, Freetown peninsula. Independent observers and the Sierra Leone Human Rights Commission reported intimidation, arrests, and political violence. Police arrested opposition party supporters, including a member of parliament who was later released without charge. Police opened an investigation into the destruction of ballot boxes at one polling center that led to the cancellation of the election results. Video footage appeared to show that SLPP operatives had ransacked the polling place. The rerun was required after a May decision by the High Court that invalidated the election of nine APC parliamentarians for alleged election irregularities, thus changing the majority in parliament from the APC to the SLPP. Observers reported less violence during the parliamentary by-elections in the Falaba and Koinadugu districts in September, although there were multiple reports of intimidation and arrests of opposition supporters.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Political parties are free to register and operate in the country. A total of 17 political parties were registered with the Political Parties Registration Commission.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit the participation of women and minorities in the political process, and they did participate. Women have the right to vote and did cast votes at similar rates as men. A December 2018 poll by the International Republican Institute found women most frequently cited fear of violence, cultural norms, and lack of support from political parties as reasons why they avoided a more active role in politics. Women were underrepresented in government. Of the 146 parliamentarians, 18 were women. As of September women led five of the 24 ministries. On the three highest courts, 10 of 35 judges were women. Cultural and traditional practices in the northern areas of the country prevented women from holding office as paramount chiefs (a parallel system of tribal government operated in each of the 190 chiefdoms).

All citizens have the right to vote, but citizenship at birth is granted only to persons of “Negro-African” descent, thus disenfranchising the significant number of Lebanese and other “non-Negro-African” persons who were born in and continued to reside in the country. Persons of non-Negro-African groups may apply to be naturalized. If naturalized, they are eligible to vote in all national and local elections, but no naturalized citizen may run for public office.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of both men and women. In February President Bio declared a State of Emergency against rape and sexual violence. In September parliament passed new legislation that raised the penalty for those convicted of rape to a minimum of 15 years’ imprisonment (see also section 6, Sexual Exploitation of Children). Previously, a conviction was punishable by between five- and 15-years’ imprisonment, although many offenders were given lesser prison terms. Press reports noted that in 2018 a man convicted of raping a six-year-old girl was given a one-year prison sentence. Rape was common and viewed more as a societal norm than a criminal problem. The law specifically prohibits spousal rape. Indictments were rare, especially in rural areas. A reluctance to use the judicial system by both victims and officials, combined with women’s lack of income and economic independence, helped perpetuate violence against women and impunity for offenders. During the year, despite the existence of the Family Support Unit (FSU) within the SLP and applicable legislation, reports of rapes, especially involving child victims, sharply increased.

The NGO Rainbo Initiative reported that its five centers assisting victims of sexual and gender-based violence had encountered 1,051 rape cases in the first half of the year. Rainbo, other civil society organizations, and government agencies assessed that thousands of rape cases go unreported. The perpetrators are often close family members or relatives who live alongside their victims. Of the 3,000 cases reported in 2018, 602 survivors became pregnant, seven contracted HIV/AIDS, and 2,404 developed sexually transmitted diseases. The Attorney General’s Office reported that only 39 of the 3,000 cases were prosecuted successfully. Many cases went unresolved due to lack of financial support, lack of forensic evidence, religious beliefs, inconsistency in the application of relevant law, and cultural beliefs.

Violent acts against women, especially wife beating and spousal rape, were common and often surrounded by a culture of silence. Conviction of domestic violence is punishable by a fine not exceeding five million leones ($555) and two years’ imprisonment. Victims seldom reported domestic violence due to their fear of social stigma and retaliation. The HRCSL observed that the incidence of sexual and gender-based violence continued to rise while arrests and convictions of perpetrators were negligible. A psychosocial worker of the NGO Rainbo Center blamed the structure of the justice system and lengthy court processes for the delay in accessing justice. First Lady Fatima Bio and NGOs such as the Rainbo Center actively promoted public awareness, calling on men to refrain from violence against women.

According to the FSU, medical and psychological services for rape victims were limited. The FSU often required victims to obtain a medical report for the filing of charges. Although the law provides that the victim of a sexual offense shall be entitled to free medical treatment and medical reports, many victims had to pay for these medical services, and most government doctors charged fees that were prohibitively expensive for the victims. Although the law provides that the victim of a sexual offense shall be entitled to free medical treatment and medical reports, many victims had to pay for these medical services.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law does not prohibit FGM/C for women or girls. According to a 2017 UNICEF report, 86.1 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 have undergone a form of genital mutilation/cutting. FGM/C is considered a traditional rite of passage into womanhood. UNICEF polling indicated that societal support for FGM/C remained strong in the country. During the year one young woman who underwent FGM/C died of blood loss.

For more information, see Appendix C.

Sexual Harassment: The law criminalizes sexual harassment, but authorities did not always effectively enforce it. It is unlawful to make unwanted sexual advances, repeatedly follow or pursue others against their will, initiate repeated and unwanted communications with others, or engage in any other “menacing” behavior. Conviction of sexual harassment is punishable by a fine not exceeding 14.3 million leones ($1,580) or imprisonment not exceeding three years. No reliable data was available on the prevalence of sexual harassment.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization. See Appendix C for information on maternal mortality.

Discrimination: The law provides for the same legal status and rights for men and women under family, labor, property, and inheritance law. Women continued to experience discriminatory practices. Their rights and positions are largely contingent on customary law and the ethnic group to which they belong. The law provides for both Sierra Leonean fathers and mothers to confer nationality to children born abroad. The law provides for equal remuneration for equal work without discrimination based on gender. Either spouse may acquire property in their own right, and women may obtain divorce without being forced to relinquish dowries.

The Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender, and Children’s Affairs reported that women faced widespread societal discrimination, particularly in matters of marriage, divorce, property, and inheritance, which are guided by customary law in all areas except Freetown. Formal law applies in customary as well as formal courts, but customary judges had limited or no legal training and often were unaware of formal law or chose to ignore it. Women’s rights and status under customary law varied significantly depending upon the ethnic group to which they belonged, but such rights and status were routinely inferior to those of men. Under customary law, women’s status in society is equal to that of a minor. Women were frequently perceived to be the property of their husbands and to be inherited on his death with his other property.

Discrimination occurred in access to credit, equal pay for similar work, and the ownership and management of a business. Women did not have equal access to education, economic opportunities, health facilities, or social freedoms. In rural areas, women performed much of the subsistence farming and had little opportunity for formal education. Women also experienced discrimination in access to employment, and it was common for an employer to dismiss a woman if she became pregnant during her first year on the job. The law does not prohibit dismissal of pregnant workers based on pregnancy.

The Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender, and Children’s Affairs has a mandate to protect the rights of women, but most international and domestic NGOs asserted the ministry did not have the resources, infrastructure, and support of other ministries to handle its assigned projects effectively. The ministry routinely relied on the assistance of international organizations and NGOs to help combat women’s rights abuses.

Birth Registration: Although the constitution explicitly prohibits discrimination based on race, tribe, gender, place of origin, political opinion, color, and religion, the constitution also denies citizenship at birth to persons who are not of “Negro-African descent.” Non-Africans who have lived in the country for at least eight years (two years for foreigners married to Sierra Leonean citizens) may apply for naturalization, subject to presidential approval. Citizenship derived by birth is restricted to children with at least one parent or grandparent of Negro-African descent who was born in the country. Children not meeting the criteria must be registered in their parents’ countries of origin.

Birth registration was not universal due to outdated birth registration law and inadequate staffing of government registry facilities. Lack of registration did not affect access to public services or result in statelessness. For additional information, see Appendix C.

Education: Despite President Bio’s Free Quality Education Program launched in August 2018, pregnant girls continued to be prohibited from attending classes on the grounds that they were a “bad moral influence.” Amnesty International and two local NGOs challenged the ban before the ECOWAS Court of Justice. In October the government announced that pregnant girls “may take maternity break during critical times of pregnancy,” may take examinations, and were encouraged to resume school after childbirth. On December 12, the ECOWAS Court of Justice ruled against the government’s ban that prevented pregnant girls from attending school. According to UNICEF, child marriage is a major restriction on girls’ education.

Child Abuse: A pattern of violence against and abuse of children existed, and according to the FSU, it increased between July and August when schools were closed. The FSU reported child abuse, including sexual violence and abandonment, increased from 2018. FSU personnel were trained in dealing with sexual violence against children, and cases of child sexual abuse generally were taken more seriously than adult rape cases.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage is 18. According to UNICEF’s world children report of 2017, 39 percent of girls in the country are married before their 18th birthday and 13 percent before their 15th birthday. The report stated that child marriage in the country is linked to poverty and lack of education, and it varies among regions of the country. The Sierra Leone Integrated Household Survey 2018 concluded that, by the time a woman reaches 19, she has already had two children. During the year the Office of the First Lady implemented Let Girls be Girls, Not Mothers, a two-year national strategy to reduce teenage pregnancy.

According to UNICEF, the country is one of 12 selected to be part of the UN Population Fund and UNICEF’s global program to accelerate action to end child marriage and teenage pregnancy, and there was evidence the practices were declining.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The minimum age of consensual sex is 18. Although the law criminalizes the sexual exploitation of children, sale of children, child trafficking, and child pornography, enforcement remained a challenge and conviction numbers remained low. In many cases of sexual assault of children, parents accepted payment instead of taking the perpetrator to court due to difficulties dealing with the justice system, fear of public shame, and economic hardship.

Responding to the high incidence of sexual and gender-based violence and other problems affecting women, in December 2018, First Lady Fatima Bio launched a broad initiative entitled, Hands Off Our Girls, focused on child marriage, teenage pregnancy, sexual-based violence, and child trafficking and prostitution. President Bio called on the country to stop all forms of discrimination against women and to restore the pride and dignity of women and girls. In February President Bio proclaimed in an emergency decree that the rape of a minor would result in a life sentence. The president’s decree expired in June when a bill to amend the Sexual Offences Act, 2012, was introduced in parliament as a direct result of the proclamation. On September 19, parliament passed the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act, 2019, that increased the maximum penalty for rape and sexual penetration of a minor from 15-years’ to life imprisonment. The law also increased the minimum sentence for rape of a minor to 15 years in prison and made provisions for the introduction of a new “aggravated sexual assault” offense.

According to a UNICEF case study in 2017, the FSU estimated more than 1,000 children experience sexual violence each year.

Displaced Children: During the year the NGO Help a Needy Child International reported that approximately 50,000 children worked and lived on the street, with 45,000 of them engaged in artisanal gravel production in the Western Area.

International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

There was no Jewish community, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities in employment and provision of state services, including judicial services. The government did not effectively implement the law and programs to provide access to buildings, information, and communications. The government-funded Commission on Persons with Disabilities is charged with protecting the rights and promoting the welfare of persons with disabilities. In view of the high rate of general unemployment, work opportunities for persons with disabilities were limited, and begging was commonplace. Children with disabilities were also less likely to attend school than other children. According to the Coordinator of the National Disability Coalition (NDC), the coalition received six cases of applicants claiming their employment was denied due to disability. The NDC stated the actual number of incidents is likely much higher.

There was considerable discrimination against persons with mental disabilities. The vast majority of persons with mental disabilities received no treatment or public services. At the Sierra Leone Psychiatric Hospital in Kissy, the only inpatient psychiatric institution that served persons with mental disabilities, authorities reported that only one consulting psychiatrist was available, patients were not provided sufficient food, and restraints were primitive and dehumanizing. The hospital lacked running water and had only sporadic electricity. Only basic medications were available.

The Ministry of Health and Sanitation is responsible for providing free primary health-care services to persons with polio and diabetic retinopathy as well as to blind or deaf persons. The ministry did not provide these services consistently, and organizations reported many persons with disabilities had limited access to medical and rehabilitative care. At year’s end the ministry had not established the legally required medical board to issue Permanent Disability Certificates that would make persons with disabilities eligible for all the rights and privileges provided by law. The Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender, and Children’s Affairs has a mandate to provide policy oversight for problems affecting persons with disabilities but had limited capacity to do so.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Strong ethnic loyalties, biases, and stereotypes existed among all ethnic groups. Ethnic loyalty was an important factor in the government, armed forces, and business. Complaints of ethnic discrimination in government appointments, contract assignments, and military promotions were common. Little ethnic segregation was apparent in urban areas, where interethnic marriage was common.

Residents of non-African descent faced some institutionalized discrimination, particularly in the areas of citizenship and nationality (see sections 3, Participation of Women and Minorities, and 6, Birth Registration).

An 1861 law prohibits male-to-male sexual acts, but there is no legal prohibition against female-to-female sex. The law, which carries a penalty of life imprisonment for “indecent assault” upon a man or 10 years’ imprisonment for attempting such an assault, was not enforced. The constitution does not offer protection from discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Sexual orientation and gender-identity civil society groups alleged that because the law prohibits male-to-male sexual activity, it limits lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons from exercising their freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly. The law, however, does not restrict the rights of persons to speak out on LGBTI human rights. No hate crime law covers bias-motivated violence against LGBTI persons. The law does not address transgender persons.

A few organizations, including Dignity Association, supported LGBTI persons, but they maintained low profiles. LGBTI groups alleged that police were biased against them.

LGBTI advocates reported that the community faced challenges ranging from violence, stigma, discrimination, blackmailing, arbitrary arrest, and public attack to denial of public services such as health care and justice. Some private hotels reportedly charged double the rate for same-sex occupants. Advocates also said LGBTI persons faced discrimination in schools. The government reportedly registered a transsexual organization in 2018, and advocates said the Human Rights Commission was engaged on LGBTI matters.

In the areas of employment and education, sexual orientation or gender identity were bases for abusive treatment, which led individuals to leave their jobs or courses of study. It was difficult for LGBTI individuals to receive health services; many chose not to seek medical testing or treatment due to fear their right to confidentiality would be ignored. Obtaining secure housing was also a problem for LGBTI persons. Families frequently shunned their LGBTI children, leading some to turn to sex work to survive. Adults risked having their leases terminated if their LGBTI status became public. Women in the LGBTI community reported social discrimination from male LGBTI persons and the general population.

As of September there was no information regarding any official action by government authorities to investigate or punish public entities or private persons complicit in abuses against LGBTI persons.

The law prohibits discrimination based on actual, perceived, or suspected HIV status, but society stigmatized persons with HIV/AIDS. The Network of HIV Positive in Sierra Leone (NETHIP-SL) in 2017 informed stakeholders and government officials that HIV/AIDS stigma was on the increase. NETHIP-SL reported that adults with HIV/AIDS lacked employment and promotion opportunities. There were also reports men often divorced their wives due to HIV/AIDS status, leaving the latter without financial support. NETHIP-SL reported children were denied access to education because of their HIV status and the problem of children with HIV/AIDS was missing from the HIV/AIDS prevention process.

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