By: Christian Alpha Conteh
“I felt like I had been killed on that day,” says Isha as she sobbed incessantly. A little over a year ago, her 16-year-old son was gunned down by the Sierra Leone police as he came home from school.
Isha ran to the township after receiving several distress calls. On arrival, she found her son’s lifeless body on the sidewalk and a large crowd of onlookers standing around it.
The boy was one of six people shot dead during a demonstration over the relocation of a standby 1.65 megawatts generator plant from the Electricity Distribution and Supply Agency’s (EDSA) Makeni outlet to the Lungi International Airport in Port Loko District, in the country’s North West Region.
Khadijatu’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 the Saint Francis Secondary School here in Makeni. 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, and tear gas followed, people running everywhere. Someone told me they [the police] had shot him. I fainted,” Kadijatu explained.
She appealed to the Julius Maada Bio government to give them (herself and other families who lost loved ones) the much-needed justice which they seek.
A similar shooting happened in Kabala, a small hilly town in northern Sierra Leone several years ago.
Reports reveal that 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.
Youth leaders requested permission from the police to hold the demonstration but were told they had to request this 21 days in advance.
Youth groups decided to meet the next day to discuss what to do. Eyewitnesses revealed 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 smell of tear gas. Some 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.
The shootout left four men injured. Samuel was shot in the back. He now permanently uses a wheelchair. “I used to do construction work. Now I cannot do anything.” He said looking sad. “I long to see the day when the person who has put me in this condition pays for his action,” Samuel noted.
The people of Makeni and Kabala are not alone. Across Sierra Leone, there are survivors of police brutality who are still waiting for justice or compensation.
Abdul 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 Independent Police Complaints Board (IPCB).
“Maybe the government will do something if there is enough pressure,” a family member of one of those shot dead in Makeni said.
In response to these killings over the years the country’s Human Rights Commission has urged the country’s police to stop taking firearms containing live rounds at scenes of protests and demonstrations except where it is extremely necessary; thus, recommending they should instead use rubber bullets and other lawful devices and means to dispersing protesters or quelling down protests.
Marcus Bangura the Secretary-General for the Consortium for Good Governance, Human Rights and Democracy (CGHRD) said over the years the country’s security forces have used excessive force and meted out unwarranted human rights violations against citizens. Describing the recurring incidents of police brutality as unacceptable.
He reiterated the Consortiums earlier call on the government which include the establishment of an independent judge-led investigation into the various incidents; all suspected perpetrators of police shootings be suspended pending the outcome of the investigation and all those found guilty of killing be made to face the full penalty of the law.
Amnesty International has also persistently urged the Sierra Leone government past and present to allow peaceful protest and law enforcement attitude towards citizens with the group in recent times urging the Bio led administration to prioritize ending police crackdowns on peaceful protesters.
“For 10 years, police in Sierra Leone have been getting away with murder as peaceful protesters and bystanders have lost their lives, or been seriously injured, with no one held to account. If the authorities are as serious as they say about upholding human rights, they should start by repealing repressive laws restricting peaceful assembly and addressing entrenched impunity for police abuses,” Amnesty International said in its 2018 report.
All survivors of police brutality can do now is continue to be hopeful that they will receive justice and compensation someday.