Global Policy Forum

Forced Marriage Pursued As Crime


Angela Stephens

UN Wire
April 16, 2004

Prosecutors at the Special Court for Sierra Leone have asked the tribunal's trial chamber to amend all previously issued indictments to include a new crime against humanity — forced marriage, chief prosecutor David Crane said yesterday at Georgetown University Law Center. With the court's first trials set to begin late next month, Crane said he expects to learn soon whether prosecutors will be able to add the charge to the existing indictments against key players in the 1991-2002 civil war that killed as many as 200,000 people and left thousands more mutilated by the rebel Revolutionary United Front's practice of amputating arms, legs and other body parts from civilians, including children. The court, in Sierra Leone's capital of Freetown, is the first international tribunal located where the crimes took place.

Thirteen indictments have been issued, although RUF leader Foday Sankoh and his deputy, Sam "Mosquito" Bockarie, have since died. Sankoh had been very ill since a stroke he suffered in 2002, and Bockarie was killed in neighboring Liberia last May. Former Liberian President Charles Taylor is among the indictees, but is in Nigeria, where he accepted an offer of exile, and Nigeria has so far not been willing to turn him over to the court. Johnny Paul Koroma, who took over the country in a coup in 1997, is also at large, his whereabouts unknown. The nine remaining indictees have been arrested and are being held in the court's detention facilities in Freetown. More indictments may be issued, Crane said.

Prosecutors decided to pursue forced marriage as a crime against humanity, Crane said, because of combatants' widespread practice during the war of abducting women as "wives," forcing them to have sex and bear children. They were threatened with death if they tried to escape, Crane said, and some were scarred with the initials "RUF" cut into their bodies, putting the women further at risk if they were captured by government soldiers or allied militia, who would think they were rebels. "They were herded like cattle from Freetown in 1999 and made to have children," Crane said. "Even now, an unknown number of women remain with their rebel 'husbands,'" he added. Because the women were held so long under threat of harm or death, Crane said, the crimes differ from rape or other war crimes prosecuted at other courts.

In another precedent-setting legal move, child abduction and recruitment will be prosecuted as a war crime at the Special Court, Crane said. All the indictments include the charge, he said. A common tactic for the RUF, Crane said, was to surround a town and force all the children to kill their own parents, then take the children away, making them dependent on the rebels and eventually desensitized to killing. According to the United Nations, more than 10,000 children were abducted and forced into conscription during the war. Child protection experts were concerned when the court was being established that children would be prosecuted. Many committed horrific crimes, but experts say they are victims as well as perpetrators of violence. Under the mandate of the court, prosecutors could indict anyone who was 15 or older at the time a crime was committed. But the mandate also instructs prosecutors to bring to justice those who bear "greatest responsibility" for war crimes in Sierra Leone. "I decided no child could bear the greatest responsibility for the crimes that have taken place," Crane said. "While their crimes cannot be condoned, they will not be prosecuted."

The court is now two years into its three-year mandate. Crane said the trials will take about one year, and he expects the court to wrap up its work next April or May. He noted that the indictment against Charles Taylor will remain in place, even if the court is not able to try him before the tribunal ends its operations. "He'll remain an indicted war criminal for life," Crane said. Crane, a U.S. attorney who previously led investigations for the Department of Defense and was the department's inspector general, said that in his many years of government and international work, "I never witnessed such pure evil" as what took place in Sierra Leone, the results of which he sees by traveling around the country and talking to Sierra Leoneans. "How we respond to the Sierra Leones of this world is telling of the international community's commitment to justice and the rule of law," he said.

Copyright, National Journal Group, 2004

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