Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-SIERRA LEONE: ‘Putting People on Trial May Ignite Fresh Conflict’

Lansana Fofana

FREETOWN, Mar 11 2004 (IPS) - Sierra Leone’s war crimes court has opened in the capital Freetown to try persons who bear the greatest responsibility for the atrocities committed during the country’s 1991-1999 conflict.

Sierra Leone’s civil war was characterised by horror and brutality. Thousands of civilians were maimed or killed and about a quarter of the country’s 4.5 million people displaced. A peace deal signed between the belligerents in July 1999 brought the conflict to an end, and the process of national rehabilitation and reconciliation underway.

The court, whose mandate expires in 2005, came about as a result of an agreement signed in the summer of 2000, between the government of the West African state and the United Nations.

“This court is a symbol of the rule of law and essential element in the pursuit of peace, justice and national reconciliation in this country,” said President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah of Sierra Leone, at Wednesday’s official opening of the war crimes court.

He said his administration was fully committed to the success of the court. “My government will continue to co-operate with its organs at all stages of the proceedings,” Kabbah added.

Geoffery Robertson, the court’s president, said: “The court is the most recent legacy of the Nuremberg ideal that crimes against humanity require prosecution and punishment.” Nuremberg is a city in Germany where German war criminals were put on trial at the end of WWII.

“Those who command genocide or mass mutilation of civilians or sexual enslavement of children cannot be forgiven or left to the delayed judgement of history or of God,” said Robertson, a British-born judge.

The opening ceremony was attended by pomp and pageantry. Dignitaries, including the UN’s legal adviser Hans Currell, who represented Secretary General Kofi Annan, the registrars of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the Hague Tribunal, foreign diplomats and civil society groups, were all in attendance. There was heavy presence of security forces from the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) and the Sierra Leonean Police.

All the major roads leading to the New England Ville in the west of town where the court is located were barricaded. At the ceremony, speaker after speaker poured accolades on the work of the court and pledged their support for its success.

So far nine militia leaders and commanders are in the custody of the court awaiting trial for various crimes including violations of international humanitarian laws. Among them is the former leader of the pro-government militia, known as “Kamajors”, Sam Hinga Norman who helped defeat the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels. Issa Sesay, the RUF’s interim leader prior to the decommissioning of combatants that marked the end of the war, is also awaiting trial.

Norman, a former cabinet minister, is proving to be a hot potato for both the Special Court and the ruling government. While the opening ceremony was taking place, some of his supporters were demonstrating 150 metres away from the court premises demanding his immediate release.

Norman’s daughter Juliet told IPS at the scene of the protests “my dad fought for the restoration of democracy and so it confounds me that he is today a sacrificial lamb. His indictment, to me, is grossly unfair.”

At least five of the protestors were arrested by the police and taken in for questioning. Also controversial was the position of the court’s President Robertson. The defence team is asking for his removal on grounds that he had published a book casting aspersions on the RUF. Some of the RUF leaders are in detention. Another inductee, former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who is seeking sanctuary in Nigeria, also featured in the book.

Taylor, like the former Sierra Leonean junta leader Johnny Paul Koroma, wanted by the court, remains at large.

RUF leader Foday Sankoh and his Field Commander Sam “Mosquito” Bockarie are dead. For this, many say the court has missed its principal suspects. “What’s the use of the Special Court when the alleged key perpetrators are either dead or are fleeing from justice,” wonders Adama Bangura, a civil servant in Freetown. “They may well scrap the court and use its funds to rehabilitate the multitude of war victims.”

Some people fear the court might become a new flashpoint for renewed hostilities. “Our war has ended and every factional fighter disarmed. Putting people on trial at this stage may ignite fresh conflict,” says Abraham Conteh, a 46-year old father of three. “My house was burnt and three of my relatives killed. I fear that this court may not end well.”

Jonathan Davies, who lost an arm through the vicious amputations by the rebels, says “we must put the past behind us. This is no time for score-settling or trials. We must forgive and reconcile.”

But Hassan Turay, a lawyer in Freetown, told IPS: “The court is vital because it will help curb impunity in the country."

 
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