Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

SIERRA LEONE: Indemnities For Rights Abuses ‘Wrong’, Says Amnesty

LONDON, Oct 14 1996 (IPS) - An Amnesty International spokeswoman has condemned plans by the Sierra Leone government to grant a South Africa-style blanket amnesty for human rights violations committed during the years of bloody civil strife.

The worldwide human rights pressure group says the mandate of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission should be expanded to investigate and if possible prosecute perpetrators of rights abuses.

The Commission was set up by the government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah to investigate cases of human rights abuses and recommend ways of compensating victims — and also grant amnesty to those responsible.

“This is wrong,” said Tessa Kordeczka, an Amnesty International spokesperson in London. “Human rights abuses, by government soldiers and rebel forces, must be thoroughly investigated by the commission and perpetrators made to account for their crimes against humanity.

“We are strongly against the government’s plans to grant immunity to people who may be guilty of gross human rights abuses. The most important thing for national reconciliation is to establish the truth of what happened and to bring rights violators to justice.”

Although the current ceasefire between the government and the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) — signed in Cote d’Ivoire in March — has seen an effective end to fighting between the armed groups, the forces have instead turned their guns on aid stores and, says Amnesty, serious abuses continue to be committed against unarmed civilians by both sides.

These seemingly random attacks in the south and east of the country, which campaigners say have increased dramatically since May, include the killing by soldiers of up to 100 civilians in Gondama, some of whom were decapitated.

Victims have been forced to carry looted goods and subsequently killed. Women and young girls have been gang-raped and there was an especially brutal series of sexual assaults during an attack on Monseneh in the Mano chiefdom, according to reports from the country.

Amnesty welcomes the inclusion of several important provisions for the respect and protection of human rights in the draft peace agreement as a positive development. But it maintains that action to stop torture, killings, ‘disappearances’ and other abuses cannot wait for the implementation of a final agreement.

It is calling on the RUF and the Kabbah government — which assumed power from the military National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) in March after internationally-monitored democratic elections the preceding month — to establish a specific sub- commission to oversee immediate implementation of mechanisms for the protection of human rights set by the draft peace agreement.

Official Sierra Leone sources declined to comment on allegations that government troops have been responsible for blatant rights abuses against innocent civilians.

“I am afraid we have nothing to say about these recent claims by Amnesty International,” said Gibril Samura, information attaché at the Sierra Leone embassy in London. “All we can say is that the peace negotiations with the RUF are on course and that the government is doing everything in its power to foster peace in the country.”

The international human rights body is also urging the government to either amend or repeal NPRC Decree No.6 (Indemnity and Transition 1996), passed during the tail-end of NPRC rule which virtually exempted the NPRC members or appointees from prosecution for “any act, matter or thing done” during military rule.

“We are very much against this decree,” Kordeczka said. “‘Any act, matter or thing done’, without further definition, could be interpreted to include massive and systematic human rights violations committed by government soldiers during the conflict.

“Decree No.6 must be amended or repealed and those responsible for abuses brought to justice.”

All observers are agreed that long-term peace and respect for human rights will continue to elude the mineral-rich nation until there is a cessation of hostilities between the government and RUF forces. This, however, does not seem to be imminent – no matter what assorted spokespersons form both sides say.

The peace process has effectively reached an impasse, with the RUF refusing to disarm and rejoin civil society if foreign troops do not leave Sierra Leone soil.

The government is adamant that the latter — the West African soldiers and troops of the Executive Outcomes mercenary army — will remain in the country until the RUF demobilises.

Given that the assistance of foreign troops has so far played the main part in ensuring that the rebels are prevented from taking — the capital Freetown, most analysts accept that the Sierra Leone authorities will not agree to the withdrawal of the mercenaries.

Therefore, many observers believe, the stalemate is bound to last for the foreseeable future, unless the RUF gives quarter, drops its insistence on foreign troops withdrawal and disarms its fighters.

However, there are some positive lights. “The ceasefire is holding, there is no full-scale war as before, so there is a willingness on both sides to reach agreement,” says Lawrence Spicer, of International Alert, the London-based NGO which has been trying to facilitate contacts between the government and the rebels.

Civil war erupted in Sierra Leone in March 1991 when the RUF launched an offensive from neighbouring Liberia in a bid to remove the one-party All Peoples Congress (APC) government from power. A year later the APC government was toppled in a coup by the young army officers of the NPRC who handed over power last March to a democratically-elected civilian government.

Almost six years of internecine bloodletting has devastated the economy and resulted in over 50,000 deaths.

More than a quarter of the country’s pre-war population of four million are either internally displaced or have sought refuge in neighbouring countries. People continue to flee to relative safety in Guinea and Liberia.

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