Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-SIERRA LEONE: War Crimes Court Opening Up Old Wounds

Lansana Fofana

FREETOWN, Jan 17 2005 (IPS) - There has been growing anxiety in Sierra Leone about the commencement of the trials of three high-profile war crimes indictees from the former military junta, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), which seized power in a coup in 1997.

The three, Tamba Alex Brima (alias Gullit), Santigie Kanu (aka Brigadier Five Five) and Ibrahim Bazzy Kamara, have spent more than a year in the custody of the war crimes court, waiting for a trial chamber to be set up before their prosecution commences.

‘’The (special) court today (Monday) swears in three judges appointed by Secretary General Kofi Annan for a second trial chamber that will soon commence the trial of the three AFRC indictees,’’ said Peter Anderson, a spokesperson for the court.

The chamber is also expected to try Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president who is currently living in Nigeria, as part of a deal to end Liberia’s bloody civil war.

Taylor has been accused of supporting Sierra Leonean rebels who have committed terrible atrocities like the chopping of limbs and lips of civilians.

‘’The setting up of the second trial chamber will help expedite the trials and keep the court within its mandate. We also urge the Nigerian authorities to hand over Charles Taylor, who must face the court and answer to charges against him,’’ remarked David Crane, the American-born prosecutor of the court.

The three AFRC indictees were battlefield commanders. They were among the 17 ‘’renegade soldiers’’ from the national army that toppled the civilian government in May 1997. They are thought to have masterminded the Jan. 1999 invasion of the capital that resulted in the murder of thousands of civilians, rape and abductions, arson attacks on homes and looting of property.

Hundreds of civilians were mutilated with some having their arms, legs and other body parts chopped off.

There are high expectations about the trials of some of the country’s most hated wartime commanders.

‘’I think their trials are long overdue,’’ commented Marie Kamara, a housewife whose husband was murdered by junta forces during the 1999 invasion of the capital by rebel forces.

‘’The junta forces abducted my only daughter (about 16) and repeatedly gang-raped her. I want to see justice done and the ring-leaders of this cruelty be brought to book,’’ Kamara told IPS at the wreckage of her home at Kissy, east of the capital Freetown.

Another survival of the junta’s brutality Elvis Dumbuya, a civil servant testified: ‘’The junta forces beat all seven of us in the family home on allegation that we were collaborators of the ousted civilian government.’’

Dumbuya added: ‘’What followed was a tale of horror. Our family home and car were burnt down, my wife raped and two children, both girls abducted and turned into sex slaves. I will never forgive those who committed those despicable acts.’’

Such is the anger boiling over in Sierra Leoneans who endured the bloody reign of terror of the military junta for nine months. And this is notwithstanding the blanket amnesty provision in the peace agreement for all combatants, as well as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which recommended national reconciliation and tolerance.

The special court, set up as an independent tribunal jointly by the United Nations and the government of Sierra Leone, effectively began functioning in 2002 with a mandate to end at the close of this year. But it seems that mandate will be extended because of the fairly slow pace of the trials and what now looks like a pattern of boycotts by most of the indictees.

The three AFRC indictees, soon expected to go on trial, face an 18-count indictment for war crimes, crimes against humanity and violations of international humanitarian law.

In addition to their group, there are three other indictees from the former Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and three more from the pro-government militia known as the Civil Defence Force (CDF) or ‘’Kamajors’’ also on trial.

The court has to date indicted 11 suspected war criminals. Nine are in custody, two dead (Foday Sankoh, the RUF leader and his erstwhile deputy General Sam ‘’Mosquito’’ Bockarie) and two on the run: former junta leader Johnny Paul Koroma and former Liberian president Charles Taylor.

The special court is now faced with the problem of boycotts by indictees thereby slowing proceedings. For example, all three CDF indictees have for several weeks been boycotting court sittings on various legal and procedural matters. The most high profiled among them is the former national co-ordinator of the CDF Sam Hinga Norman, an ex-minister of defence. He alleges that the charges brought against him were carried out in a wrong procedural manner. Once he set off his boycott, the other CDF indictees followed suit.

Now, all three RUF indictees have joined the fray. They have been boycotting court hearings and the RUF interim leader Issa Sesay protested to the court last week what he described as ‘’continued detention’’.

‘’The war ended without a winner or loser. We negotiated peace and the peace accord gave blanket (amnesty) to all ex-combatants and so I see no reason for (this) special court,’’ Sesay argued. According to him, the special court was a deal between the Sierra Leonean government and the United Nations, excluding the RUF.

‘’We (RUF) were not a party to the court’s setting. We are being treated unfairly,’’ Sesay concluded.

Court officials admit anonymously that the pattern of boycotts may somehow affect proceedings.

‘’If all the indictees withhold their rights to appear before the court and refuse to co-operate with their counsels, as some of them are already doing, this will surely affect the trials making the whole process difficult,’’ a court insider opined to IPS on condition of anonymity.

The special court’s mandate is to bring to justice those who bear the greatest responsibility for atrocities committed in Sierra Leone since Nov. 30, 1996, halfway into the war and the date when the first peace accord was signed in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, between the government and the rebels.

The court is unique in that it blends Sierra Leonean criminal law with international humanitarian law and its judges include both Sierra Leoneans and international judges.

There are though doubts about the efficacy of the court in ending the cycle of impunity in this impoverished country, the expressed objective of the UN-backed tribunal.

The court also subtly faces threats from groups like former CDF supporters and RUF hard core sympathisers. But court officials dismiss any claims of threats against its operation saying security is well in place to protect both court officials and indictees in custody.

Some analysts and commentators speculate the court might turn into another flashpoint of renewed hostilities.

Charlie Hughes of the non-governmental think tank Forum for Democratic Initiatives (FORDI) in an interview with IPS said: ‘’Although there can be no justification for impunity, I think the special court is not the answer either. Sierra Leone’s conflict was unique and the fact that it was settled through negotiations, it is my view that a court like the special court might not help with national reconciliation; rather it will open up old wounds.’’

There is though a desire among yet another group of war victims, the hundreds of amputees to see justice done, like 25-year old Jabati Mambu, a student whose left arm was chopped off by rebels using blunt machete.

‘’The indictees must all go through the trials. I believe that way impunity will be ended in this country,’’ Mambu told IPS.

As outlined by the UN Security Council, the special court is a novel experiment in international criminal tribunals. It will thus remain an experiment until it achieves its task of punishing those believed to bear the greatest responsibility for war crimes committed in this country.

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