Global Policy Forum

UN Court Opens Trials for Rebel Leaders


By Clarence Roy-Macaulay

Associated Press
July 5, 2004

Calling it a "tale of horror," a U.N.-sponsored war crimes court opened the first trials Monday for rebel military commanders accused in a vicious 10-year campaign for control of diamond-rich Sierra Leone. Onlookers in the tightly guarded courtroom muttered as the court detailed the allegations in an 18-count joint indictment — systematic killings, rapes, enslavement of child soldiers and mutilation with machetes.

Prosecutors also described a network of foreign backing for the rebels, including training and forces from Liberia's then-President Charles Taylor and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. "What took place in Sierra Leone marks the limits of our language to communicate, and falls outside the realm of expression," David Crane, the American chief prosecutor for the U.N.-backed court, said in opening statements. "This is a tale of horror, beyond the gothic into the realm of Dante's Inferno," Crane said.

The three former military commanders of the Revolutionary United Front are accused as primary culprits in their movement's 1991-2002 battle to take control of Sierra Leone and its diamond fields. Rebels adopted a trademark atrocity that made them notorious: chopping off the hands, legs, lips, ears and breasts of their civilian victims with machetes. Countless maimed survivors struggle to make new livings today or inhabit vocational training camps set up for the mutilated. The three accused are former rebel battlefield commanders Issa Sesay, Morris Kallon and Augustine Gbao. Sesay was the rebel's last leader before the fighting stopped. The rebels' founder and longtime leader — Foday Sankoh, known as 'Pa' to his often drugged and drunk child fighters — died of natural causes in U.N. custody last year.

Crane made frequent reference Monday to another top indicted figure outside of court custody — Taylor, who has been living in exile in Nigeria, where he fled on Aug. 11 as rebels laid siege to the Liberian capital of Monrovia. Sierra Leone's war began with a Feb. 27, 1991, planning session in Gbarnga, Liberia, Taylor's base, Crane alleged. About 250 Revolutionary United Front fighters launched the invasion from Liberia, supported by Taylor's forces and Libyan special forces, Crane said. Libya is widely accused of training and supporting both Taylor and Sankoh as Cold War-era guerrillas against U.S. interests in West Africa. Gadhafi was mentioned in the special court's indictments but was not charged with any crime.

All parties were fighting for influence and Sierra Leone's mineral wealth, the prosecutor said. "Among their goals, the diamond fields of eastern Sierra Leone; and their motive — power, riches and control in furtherance of a joint criminal enterprise that extended from West Africa north into the Mediterranean region and the Middle East," Crane said. "Blood diamonds are the common thread that bound them together," the prosecutor said. "The rule of the gun was supreme."

Rebels directed most of their attacks on civilians, aiming to terrorize the population, Crane said. Relatives of victims were among those in the courtroom Monday. At times, individuals within the gallery would sigh as prosecutors described the alleged atrocities committed. The rebel commanders listened attentively to prosecutors' outlining of the case against them. Defense lawyers are to speak at subsequent hearings, although two of the rebel leaders are asking to deliver their own opening statements. Sierra Leone policemen and flak-jacketed U.N. troops armed with AK-47s guarded the courtroom.

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


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