'The gallows are ready': Sierra Leone reconsiders death penalty

Freetown (AFP) - For almost 20 years, Sierra Leone has avoided using the death penalty. But spurred by public outrage over ritual murders and gang violence, the government is moving once again to hang offenders.

The legal community believes one sensational case in particular has driven the government to consider resorting again to capital punishment, a case they say was marred by police incompetence and a poorly handled trial.

On the last night of his life in May 2015, a slight young musician known as DJ Clef played a raucous set at the home of a faith healer known for his high-society connections and the tattooed faces of demons covering his body.

Clef -- born Sydney David Buckle -- was later found, with his organs and genitals missing, by the road leading to a military cemetery on the outskirts of the capital, Freetown.

His death sickened a country where a civil war and more recently Ebola have ravaged society and the economy, firing up a huge Freetown fan base who adored his laid-back demeanour and Afrobeat mixes.

A drive for swift justice was led by Milton Coker, the president of the All Stars music collective to which Clef belonged.

"People who kill should be killed," Coker said flatly in a recent interview with AFP. "It will deter others."

Baimba Moi Foray, an influential "ju-ju man", or witch doctor, and an accomplice were duly convicted of his murder and sentenced to hang for their crimes in September.

If an appeal is unsuccessful, they could become the first since 1998 to face the gallows.

- Bungled case? -

Death row lawyer Simitie Lavaly told AFP that because of the media buzz around the celebrities involved, police felt pressure to find a perpetrator fast, and bungled the case.

"The police did not do a thorough job and the only reason why they are convicted is the media around the case," she told AFP.

Lurid local stories speculated over Foray's methods and the fate of Buckle's body parts, heightened by the witch doctor's alleged connections to influential figures in Sierra Leone and even an African president.

"It was a prejudiced judge and jury," Lavaly said, who were presented with "hardly any" substantial evidence.

Despite such claims, senior officials say a new bill is already being drafted to harden up the current legislation on violent crime, spurred by a wave of popular support.

Interior Minister Palo Conteh did not pull his punches in a recent interview with AFP.

"I've instructed the Director General of the Male Correctional Facility to ensure that the gallows are oiled, cleaned and ready to be used," Conteh said.

"We have not been executing convicts due to a presidential moratorium but considering the increased lawlessness and violence in society we have to kill as prescribed by law," Conteh added.

- Root causes -

Rights groups say the government's populist turn avoids tackling the root problems that fuel violence in Sierra Leone: poverty, unemployment and corruption.

A 2004 truth and reconciliation commission said the central cause of Sierra Leone's horrific 1991-2002 civil war was "endemic greed, corruption and nepotism that deprived the nation of its dignity and reduced most people into a state of poverty."

The commission recommended abolishing the death penalty as an "important and symbolic departure from the past", as successive governments abused capital punishment to target their enemies.

More recently, Ebola ravaged the fragile nation's health system but also wrecked its economy, leaving many young people jobless, homeless and fending for themselves.

The US State Department has monitored a "steady increase in the number of gangs and cliques in Freetown over the past five years" by unemployed young people who form entourages around local hip-hop artists.

The gangs "increased criminality and anti-social behaviour", including murders, make the pages of Sierra Leone's newspapers every day.

A government decision to ban motorbike taxis in downtown Freetown in May removed a rare source of casual work to the the city's youth.

"Governments are often relying on the death penalty rather than doing the very hard work of working out the causes of crime," said Amnesty International's West Africa Researcher Sabrina Mahtani.

"A lot of public opinion is based on very erroneous beliefs around the death penalty," she added. "People believe the death penalty is a deterrent -- it's not," Mahtani added.

For now, there are only a handful of people on death row in Sierra Leone. Presidential pardons have seen the vast majority of death sentences commuted to life in prison.

But the public no longer seemed to be behind moves to repeal the death penalty, said Attorney General and Minister of Justice Joseph Fitzgerald Kamara, adding it was "high time" to reconfigure the way Sierra Leone dealt with violent crime.

"One thing that strikes deep in my heart is the escalation of the murder rate," he said. "Every other day a murder file will come across my desk and that is a real serious concern."