Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

SIERRA LEONE: Former Rebel Commanders Awaiting Judgment

Lansana Fofana

FREETOWN, Aug 7 2008 (IPS) - Final arguments in the lengthy trial of three former commanders of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) have ended in Freetown, making way for judgment which is expected by the end of this year.

The three – Issa Sesay, Morris Kallon and Augustine Gbao – have been on trial since July 2004, following their arrest and indictment by the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone on an 18-count charge of war crimes, crimes against humanity and serious violations of international humanitarian laws.

The former president of Liberia, Charles Taylor, is also being tried by the Special Court, accused of having provided support to the RUF in exchange for so-called "blood diamonds". For security reasons, his trial is taking place in the Hague.

Four years into the trials, public interest is still high, as the people wait for justice to be dispensed. The court earlier this year sentenced two sets of militia leaders, two from the pro-government civil defence force (CDF) and three from the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), a splinter group from the national army that ousted the elected civilian government in a May 1997 coup, remaining in power for nine months before it was itself toppled by a Nigerian-led regional intervention force.

Jabati Mambu, a 25-year old who had his right hand chopped off at the wrist by rebel forces when they invaded Freetown in January 1999, is still bitter.

"I want to see justice done to the three RUF commanders. I was a school going boy at the time when I was captured by the rebels and mercilessly amputated. Now, most of the rebels have been rehabilitated and given skills training while I and other amputees languish with our scars. We know of huge donor assistance coming through for us but we never receive it. This is just too unfair; and so if these people are punished, that will be justice for us the victims."

Some of the testimony by witnesses has been horrific, reporting mass murders and rape, to mutilation of body parts and cannibalism. Witnesses have spoken of fighters disemboweling pregnant women, attacking civilians and hacking off limbs, locking whole families in their houses and set ablaze, with anyone attempting to escape shot immediately.

In 1999, the RUF signed a peace deal with the government of then-president Ahmad Tejan Kabba and transformed itself into a political party; but failed miserably in multi-party elections three years later, losing the presidential race and failing to secure even a single seat in parliament.

A reconciliation process was set in place, with all factional fighters granted blanket amnesty. But a deal agreed between the United Nations and the Sierra Leonean government in 2002 saw the setting up of the "Special Court," with the mandate of prosecuting "those who bear the greatest responsibility" for heinous crimes committed during the civil conflict.

The president of the Coalition of Civil Society organisations, Charles Mambu, in an interview with IPS, laments: "The people of Sierra Leone indeed need reconciliation. However, the atrocities committed by the RUF deserve maximum punishment. This country cannot condone impunity anymore because we do not want a repeat of our immediate ugly past."

There is hardly any support for the RUF in the country. A few of their leaders who have avoided indictment by the special court today appear apologetic. Eldred Collins, a former spokesperson for the movement, appeals for clemency for his colleagues in detention.

"We agreed to a peace pact and the war was brought to a close. I don't believe the trial of the three gentlemen at the special court is in the good spirit of national reconciliation. I believe they should be released and let bygones be bygones," Collins says.

Collins, though, hardly dares express such views openly; not whilst the nearly 10,000 amputees and war wounded are exasperated by the fact that the ex-combatants were compensated by the government and donors with skills training, while the victims are yet to benefit from any such programme.

The two earlier trials of CDF and AFRC personnel resulted in sentences of between six and fifty years.

The court's spokesperson Peter Anderson remarks: "The (special) court has an agreement with some countries in the region which have promised to provide detention facilities for those convicted. These facilities have to meet international standards and as far as it is now, Sierra Leone's prisons are not up to such standards so those found guilty would have to serve out their sentences outside of Sierra Leone."

Sierra Leone’s prisons do not meet international standards such as in the areas of food, accommodation and recreational facilities. Anderson also points to the many jail breaks that have taken place in the country, in most cases involving armed rebels or renegade soldiers who broke into prisons to free their colleagues. The fear of convicted war criminals escaping resonates wiith many Sierra Leoneans.

Abdul Sesay, a 45-year old auto mechanic who lost four relatives during the rebel attack on the capital Freetown, in January 1999, says, "I don't think it is wise keeping those people in our jails. They are very dangerous and we have witnessed many incidents where the prisons are broken into and hard core criminals set free only to unleash terror on us. Let them serve their sentences somewhere else; that will make me feel good."

The court is expected to end its work in the first half of 2009.

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