Sierra Leone's "Model" Tribunal


Sebastiaan Gottlieb

Radio Nederland
March 10, 2004

The Special Court for Sierra Leone officially started work today. It will be trying those accused of serious crimes committed in the period after 1996, when the country's civil war continued after an initial peace agreement failed to hold. Housed in the capital, Freetown, the new forum - known as the SCSL - is meant to be more streamlined than the tribunals for Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, and also carry out its work more effectively and efficiently. With a maximum budget of 57 million US dollars, it is expected to complete the task just over a year from now.

A model for the future

Designed to try people more quickly and at less cost than its predecessors, the court is regarded as representing the "next generation" of war tribunals and could provide a model for similar institutions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The chief prosecutor, David Crane from the United States, has already indicted 13 people for some of the most gruesome crimes, including murder, physical mutilation and amputations, rape, terror, slavery, arson and the use of child soldiers. The former president of neighbouring Liberia, Charles Taylor, has also been charged, but he's still hiding in Nigeria, which refuses to hand him over to the tribunal. The cost savings are to be achieved in part by trying the accused in groups of three. This means some witnesses will have to appear in court only once. All those on trial face the same kind of accusations whether they are rebels from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), government soldiers or Kamajor fighters from the Civil Defence Forces (CDF).

A last-minute blow

But the court suffered a major setback on the very eve of its first working day. British judge Geoffrey Robertson was challenged by the defence teams because of a book he wrote in which he describes the RUF as rebels who are responsible for the most terrible crimes against humanity. He also speaks of "diabolical torture" and calls the late leader of the RUF, Foday Sankoh, Sierra Leone's "national butcher". The defence counsels argue that this is a clear indication of bias on the part of Mr Robertson, and say his ability to act objectively and independently has been compromised. Consequently, his colleague judges have asked him to stand down so as not to jeopardise the credibility of the SCSL.

Big ambitions

Dutch lawyer Michiel Pestman is defending one of the accused, government official Moinina Fofana. Mr Pestman says the plans for the tribunal are fairly ambitious, particularly so given David Crane's stated intention to prosecute members of al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and those who traded in so-called "blood" diamonds to finance the war in Sierra Leone. And Mr Pestman has serious doubts as to whether that's all really feasible; the more so given that the tribunal is meant to be shutting up shop half way through 2005. Among those due to stand trial is Chief Sam Hinga Norman, the head of the Kamajor fighters who have been accused of, among other things, cannibalism. Followers of Chief Norman are seriously upset by his having to stand trial even though they fought alongside the government against the RUF rebels. This has led them to threaten to disrupt the beginning of his trial.

The amnesty obstacle

Despite the problems, there's also optimism about the new tribunal, which has been established in close cooperation with the current government of Sierra Leone. Its very existence should also help bolster the country's domestic justice system, thus enabling the country to try similar cases by itself in future. But that will entail a partial lifting of the general amnesty announced in 1999 as part of the Lomé peace accord. Under international law, such an amnesty may not be conferred on those accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes. All the more reason, therefore, to keep a close eye on future developments at the SCSL in Freetown.

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