Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

POLITICS-SIERRA LEONE: “Dogs of War and Hounds From Hell”

Lansana Fofana

FREETOWN, Jul 6 2004 (IPS) - “This is the day I’ve been waiting for, the day when someone would be made to answer for what the rebels did to me,” said 20-year-old Jabati Mambu, a student whose right arm was amputated by Sierra Leonean rebels during their invasion of the capital, Freetown, in Jan. 1999.

“I am now handicapped and have lost the better part of my youth-hood,” Mambu added, as the trial of three top officials of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) got underway earlier this week.

“The rebels attacked our house in the east of Freetown and abducted my two sisters after raping them. They then slashed off my arm with a blunt machete. I will never forgive these monsters and would only be satisfied if the court punishes their leaders.”

The RUF, formerly a rebel movement, terrorized parts of Sierra Leone during a civil war that raged for much of the 1990s, fuelled and funded by diamonds illegally sold on world markets.

The group’s tendency to amputate limbs, notably those of civilians, became its trademark – and is one of the reasons why three RUF officials made their first appearance Monday, Jul.5, before a war crimes tribunal set up in Freetown (the “Special Court for Sierra Leone”).

“These three war crimes indictees are dogs of war and hounds from hell. Their motive for fighting was less political and much more criminal,” said David Crane, Chief Prosecutor of the court, Monday.

“It is a chilling tale of horror, a joint criminal enterprise that spread beyond Sierra Leone and involved external players like the former president of Liberia, Charles Taylor,” Crane noted.

The accused include Issa Sesay, who took over as leader of the RUF when its previous head – Foday Sankoh – was arrested in 2000. The group’s chief of security, Augustine Gbao, and Morris Kallon – also known as Bilai Kareem – are the other officials to go on trial this week.

They are facing an 18-count indictment for war crimes such as unlawful killings, terrorising the civilian population, sexual violence and abductions – and the use of child soldiers.

While all three have asserted their innocence, they have also challenged the authority of the court to try them – and indicated that they will take the matter up with Sierra Leone’s Supreme Court.

The war crimes tribunal, which has the backing of the United Nations, is funded by Britain and the United States. It was established in 2000, and observes local and international laws. It is also staffed by legal minds from both Sierra Leone and other UN states.

“This is a constitutional matter. I don’t see how this court can be over and above even the Supreme Court of the country,” a defence counsel for one of the accused told IPS Tuesday.

But, Sieh Mansaray – like Mambu – welcomes the trial. He had gone to search for food in the eastern diamond-rich city of Kono when he encountered the RUF, in 1998.

“They lined us up, 24 in number. Twelve of us were amputated and the rest shot dead. The rebels then told us to go to President Kabbah to fix our limbs because we voted for him,” he told IPS.

Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was elected president of Sierra Leone in 1996, but deposed the following year by a group of army officers and RUF members. The intervention of regional troops enabled his return to power a year later – but in Jan. 1999, the RUF managed to re-occupy sections of Freetown.

Although UN peacekeepers were deployed to uphold a peace deal signed later that year, unrest persisted. Sierra Leone’s civil war was only declared over in Jan. 2002.

The tribunal is the only war crimes court to be operating in the country where the abuses in question occurred. Its mandate is to try individuals who allegedly bear the greatest responsibility for atrocities perpetrated in Sierra Leone since Nov. 1996, when Kabbah signed his first peace deal with the RUF.

To date, the court has indicted 13 people, including Charles Taylor who is currently exiled in Nigeria. Taylor is accused of being principally responsible for war crimes in Sierra Leone, for his role in arming the rebels in return for “conflict diamonds”.

The other accused are drawn from a militia known as the “kamajors”, which backed the government during the war, and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council: the junta that overthrew Kabbah in 1997. Former council leader Johnny Paul Koroma is also on the run from the court.

The deaths of RUF founder Sankoh and his notorious field commander, Sam “Mosquito” Bockarie, last year have left some feeling that court proceedings are irrelevant. The men were considered two of the main architects of the destruction in Sierra Leone.

Sankoh’s health declined after his arrest on war crimes charges, and he died of natural causes. Bockarie was killed while fighting in Liberia’s civil war.

Adds James Conteh, a cab driver in Freetown, “If they can’t rope in Taylor – and locate and arrest Johnny Koroma – what then is the use of the court?”

Court spokeswoman Alison Cooper told IPS Tuesday that every effort is being made to bring Taylor to justice. However, the tribunal can only appeal to Nigeria to hand Taylor over – not compel it to do so.

To date, Abuja has not indicated any willingness in this regard – although two Nigerians have asked a court in their country to review Taylor’s right to asylum.

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