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Sierra Leone War Crimes Trials to Begin June 3

Agence France Presse
May 13, 2004

The UN-backed war crimes court for Sierra Leone announced trial dates for those accused of bearing the greatest responsibility for atrocities committed during the west African state's decade of rebel war.

The joint trial of three alleged leaders of the pro-government Civil Defense Forces (CDF) or Kamajors will begin June 3 at the new court complex built atop one of Freetown's rolling hills, a statement from the tribunal said.

Three men accused of being leaders of the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF), whose uprising in 1991 sparked the war considered among the most brutal in modern history, will stand trial beginning July 5.

No date has been set for three defendants representing the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), renegade former soldiers who led a brief but bloody military junta in 1997 that kicked off the second half of the war that left as many as 200,000 dead. Thousands of civilians were also maimed or mutilated in the war, which was officially declared over in January 2002.

That the court will try the CDF defendants first came as a surprise to some, as their indictments were the most controversial. Many in Sierra Leone, particularly in the diamond-rich east and coastal south, consider the CDF -- especially its leader Sam Hinga Norman -- to be heroes for having liberated the west African state from the rebels. Norman, Moinina Fofana and Allieu Kondewa each face an eight-count indictment on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other violations of international law. Though they will be tried together, they will receive separate verdicts.

One of the Sierra Leonean members of the CDF defense team said it was a "great relief" that a trial date had finally been set, as their clients had been languishing in custody for more than a year. "We can promise we will put up a formidable defense for our clients," he told AFP on condition of anonymity. "It's not going to be a pushover."

RUF defendants Issa Sesay, Morris Kallon and Augustin Gbao face 18 charges including the just-added count of "forced marriage" for the alleged abduction and rape of thousands of girls and women who became the bush wives of the marauding rebels. Foday Sankoh, who founded the RUF to overthrow then president Joseph Momoh in 1991, and his top lieutenant Sam "Mosquito" Bockarie were also indicted but have since died -- Sankoh from illness in custody and Bockarie under a hail of bullets in neighbouring Liberia.

The court has also indicted fugitive AFRC leader Johnny Paul Koroma, who has not been seen since December 2002, and former Liberian president Charles Taylor, accused of arming and training the RUF in exchange for "blood" diamonds. Taylor fled into exile in Nigeria last August, heralding an end to 14 years of war in Liberia. His Nigerian hosts have remained firm in the face of international pressure and an Interpol warrant that they will not hand him over to the Freetown court. The appeals chamber of the court is expected to rule on motions brought by Taylor's lawyers to quash the indictment before trials begin, court spokesman Peter Andersen told AFP.

Prosecutors have lined up 138 witnesses to testify, with many appearing under a pseudonym or behind a curtain to ensure their security. Created under a pact between the United Nations and the Freetown government, the court has a three-year mandate, expiring in June 2005.

A hybrid of national and international law, the court is funded entirely by donations from UN member states but is not under the direction of the world body. And unlike war crimes tribunals established for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, the court is sitting in the country where the crimes were committed. But it is also strapped for funds. Supported by donors led by the United States and former colonial power Britain, the tribunal faces a 20 million dollar budget shortfall, even after a recent pledge from Canada of one million dollars.

More Information on International Justice
More Information on the Special Court for Sierra Leone
More Information on Charles Taylor


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