A court in Sierra Leone has overturned treason convictions for 11 men. It is the first successful appeal against a death penalty in that country, opening the possibility of an eventual end to capital punishment there.
"It was like a miracle, I could not believe it. We were all filled with emotions when the judge said that we were acquitted and discharged," said Hindolo Trye, one of those aquitted.
The charges - laid against 10 members of the former armed opposition groups, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), and one civilian - related to an armed attack on the armory at Wellington barracks, on the outskirts of Freetown in January 2003, in an apparent attempt to overthrow the government of President Kabbah.
"The acquittal of the eleven condemned prisoners is phenomenal," said Brima Sheriff, the director of Amnesty International in Sierra Leone. "This is the very first time in the history of this country that condemned prisoners had won their appeal and released especially for the conviction of treason."
Sadly, Osho Williams, the lawyer and All Peoples' Congress member of parliament who represented the eleven convicted prisoners during their 2004 trial and subsequent appeal, died just a few days after winning this victory.
This overturning of a previous decisions by the court has highlighted a key argument against the death penalty - the fact that an error in judgment can never be corrected if the victims have lost their lives.
The Court of Appeal acquitted the ten for procedural lapses during their trial; the fact that the trial judge failed to analyse the evidence led by the prosecution and to relate same to the law; and the trial judge's failure to direct the jury adequately on the law relating to accomplices, and the danger of convicting on the uncorroborated evidence of an accomplice.
In Sierra Leone murder, aggravated robbery and treason are capital crimes.
However there have been no judicial executions since October 1998, when 24 AFRC members convicted of treason were publicly executed after a trial before a military court.
One of the key recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which was established by the government in 2000 to create an impartial historical record of human rights abuses committed during the armed conflict and to provide a forum for victims and perpetrators to recount their experiences was enshrining the right to human dignity and abolishing the death penalty.
The TRC's report explicitly calls for the immediate repeal of laws authorising the death penalty, for a moratorium on all executions pending abolition, and for the government to commute all pending death sentences.
But the Constitutional Review Commission of Sierra Leone has recommended only that the death penalty be replaced by life imprisonment in all cases of treason or other crimes of political nature that do not directly result in the death of another person and be replaced by life imprisonment.
"This is not enough," said the Amnesty Director in Sierra Leone. "We are calling for full commitment by the government for a abolition of the death penalty and nothing less"
Meanwhile, on Nov. 20, Sierra Leone abstained from voting on a moratorium on the death penalty at the UN General Assembly. This abstention has been condemned by many rights activists in the country.
The country still has 13 prisoners - ten male and three female - on death row at the maximum-security Pademba Road Prison, according to prisons officials.
Mambu S. Feika , the director of Prison Watch - an organization that monitors all prisonS in Sierra Leone - said that the acquittal of the ten death row prisoners has brought not only faith in the justice system of the country but hope for the other 13 prisoners awaiting executions.
"The previous government of Tejan Kabbah has observed a moratorium on the death penalty. The Ernest Bai Koroma government has started on a good footing on the death penalty we sense willingness by this government to get rid of the death penalty in our statutes and these signs are good for the remaining 13 on death row."
The Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Serry Kamal, pointed out that the president still reserves the decision to endorse the death penalty prescribed by the courts but that as the Minister of Justice, he will not recommend to the President to sign the execution order for any condemned Prisoner.
"Osho fought to save our lives it is a pity he had to loose his before he could see us live again, we hope that his party which is in power lives his dream to abolish the death penalty," Hindolo sighed.