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SIERRA LEONE: First war crimes trial starts at UN-backed court

FREETOWN, 4 June 2004 (IRIN) - A Special Court that includes five judges appointed by the United Nations has begun the trial of those deemed primarily responsible for war crimes and human rights abuse committed during Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war.

The first three individuals to stand trial for commiting atrocities during the 1991-2001 conflict were led into the dock of a specially built court house in the capital Freetown on Thursday.

Controversially, they were not leaders of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel movement which sought to overthrow the elected government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.

They were members of the Civil Defence Force (CDF), a civilian militia group, based on traditional societies of hunters known as Kamajors, which fought alongside the Tejan Kabbah's army against the rebels.

Special Court Prosecutor David Crane, a former lawyer with US Department of Defence, said in his opening statement that the CDF had brutally killed and raped and terrorised thousands of people, recruited child soldiers and commited acts of cannibalism during the decade-long conflict.

"The just cause of a civil defence force in Sierra Leone, set up to defend a nation, became distorted and twisted beyond measure," Crane told a packed court room.

"The ghosts of thousands of the murdered and dead stand among us. They cry out for a fair and transparent trial to let the world know what took place here in Sierra Leone," he added.

Before him in the dock stood the three top leaders of the CDF: Sam Hinga Norman, the National Coordinator of the militia movement, who went on to become Interior Minister, Moinina Fofana, the National Director of War of the militia force, and Alieu Kondewa, the High Priest of the CDF, who supervised the traditional initiation rites that its members were obliged to go through.

Crane said he would produce evidence of several atrocities for which these men were directly responsible.

He cited one incident in which CDF gunmen arrested 65 people who had been forced to work in a diamond mine by the RUF and shot them dead in groups of three or four. When the executioners realised they were running low on ammunition, they resorted to beheading the last 10 one at a time, he added.

Deputy prosecutor Joseph Kamara meanwhile explained that witnesses would testify how Kondewa, the High Priest of the CDF, repeatedly raped a woman over the course of a week and how some CDF militia men cleaned out the intestines of some of their victims and roasted and ate them with cassava.

While these allegations of brutal murders and cannibalism were being recounted to the spellbound court, Hinga Norman smiled and began writing a note to the judge, dismissing his defence team.

Kondewa looked shocked as rape allegations against him were recounted.

Fofana, the third accused, listened to a translation of the proceedings through headphones with a smile crossing his face now and then.

Presiding judge Benjamin Itoe of Cameroon adjourned the proceedings after the prosecution's 100-minute opening statement upon receiving the hand-written note from Hinga Norman stating that he would conduct his own defence before the court.

"It is a fundamental issue which the chamber would like to address and deliver a reasoned decision on," he said.
The trial was due to resume on Tuesday 8 June.

A second separate trial of three RUF leaders, Issa Hassan Sesay, Morris Kallon and Augustine Gbao, is due to begin on 5 July.

The Special Court is an international war crimes tribunal set up under the terms of an agreement between the Sierra Leone government and the United Nations signed in January 2002.

It has so far indicted 13 people of whom two have since died. The remaining nine accused are currently in custody, but court officials have hinted that other indictments may follow.

This is the second international war crimes tribunal to be set up in Africa after the international court established in Arusha, Tanzania, to try those responsible for the genocide in Rwanda.

Itoe, the presiding judge, said in his opening remarks at the CDF trial that the proceedings would be fair and the accused would be presumed innocent unless proven guilty "beyond all reasonable doubts" by the prosecution.

"We, as a court....are not bound by the findings or conclusions of these investigations or the contents of the indictments, which so far are mere allegations," Itoe said. "Our decisions will be entirely based on the best oral, documentary and other evidence that is advanced by the parties before us."

But Itoe also stressed the role of the court in combatting impunity and contributing to the process of national reconciliation in Sierra Leone following the brutal decade-long conflict.

In recent months, the relevance of the tribunal, where five UN-appointed foreign judges sit alongside three Sierra Leonean judges, has been questioned by many Sierra Leoneans.

Critics have pointed out that the four men widely seen as those most responsible for the atrocities of the civil war are beyond the Special Court's reach.

The two top leaders of the RUF, Foday Sankoh and Sam Bockarie are now dead, while two other key indictees; former Charles Taylor of Liberia, who armed and backed the RUF rebels, and Johnny Paul Koroma, the leader of a military junta which tried to join forces with the rebels in 1997 and 1998, have escaped its clutches.

Koroma went into hiding in January 2003 following an abortive attack on an army barracks in Freetown, in which his followers were implicated.

Taylor, who was forced out of power in August last year, has been granted political asylum in Nigeria.

Some supporters of Tejan Kabbah, who was re-elected for a second term as president in 2002, have also questioned why the leaders of the CDF, which was supporting a constitutionally elected government, should be put on trial at all.

All the same, the court, financed by foreign donors, is being keenly watched as a potential model for war crimes tribunals in other conflicts.

Reuters news agency quoted Robin Vincent, the Special Court's UN-appointed Registrar, as saying he had been invited by the US State Department to take part in a planning mission to Iraq "because they felt quite strongly there were similarities."

Theme (s): Conflict, Governance, Human Rights,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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