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The Special Court - one of many tools for a lasting peace

[Sierra Leone] Rebel Boy
Those who recruited child soldiers go on trial (IRIN)

After a decade of war 1991-2002, Sierra Leoneans asked the world for help in bringing to justice those responsible for crimes during the fighting, says a document explaining the Special Court for Sierra Leone. "The international community answered that call because they believed that only by holding people accountable will Sierra Leone truly know lasting peace."

The UN-backed Court, set up in 2002, marked the first time a war crimes tribunal was to be held in the country where the atrocities were committed. In this case such crimes included systematic murder, rape and sexual slavery, and mutilation - namely the hacking off of limbs.

Also unique was that the Court operated simultaneously with a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which wrapped up its work in 2004, handing a series of recommendations to the Sierra Leone government. Debate lingers over whether running the two institutions parallel is the best approach to post-war peace and justice.

Another key distinction was the Court’s “hybrid” nature, with judges and staff from both in and outside Sierra Leone trying violations of both local and international law. Its 11 judges are appointed by both the United Nations and the Sierra Leone government. The current UN-appointed chief prosecutor is Desmond de Silva, a 67-year-old British lawyer who had been nominated by the Sierra Leone government in 2002 as deputy prosecutor.

Seated in the capital Freetown in its own specially built premises, the Special Court was created in 2002 by an agreement between the UN and the Sierra Leonean government. In 2000, while the country was still in the throes of war, the Sierra Leonean government had asked the UN to establish a war crimes tribunal and the UN had passed a resolution authorising this in August 2000.

The Special Court has been at work on three trials, concerning the three parties to the conflict – the Civil Defence Forces (CDF), a militia fighting alongside the Sierra Leone army; the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels; and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) rebels.

Map of Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone - war crimes accused must have lawyer
Map of Sierra Leone
Friday, January 24, 2003
Judges reject Norman's right to conduct own defence...
Map of Sierra Leone
Taylor is blamed for fomenting war in the region

Taylor is only foreigner among 13 indictees

But the courthouse built in the New England area of Freetown came under the international media spotlight in recent days with the arrest and detention of its most prominent indictee - former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who in his first appearance before the court on 3 April pleaded not guilty to 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He will be the first former African leader to face trial before an international tribunal for crimes allegedly perpetrated while in office.

The Court was mandated to try not all those who carried out war crimes, but "those bearing the greatest responsibility”. Sierra Leone's war pitted RUF rebels against the government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. AFRC rebels seized power in 1997 but were later put down by regional forces and subsequently aligned with the RUF.

The Court can prosecute for war crimes and crimes against humanity under the Geneva Convention, international humanitarian law, and Sierra Leonean law; including murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, imprisonment, torture, rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy and any other form of sexual violence, persecution on political, racial, ethnic or religious grounds, and other inhumane acts.


Les amputés sont un témoignage vivant des horreurs de la guerre civile en Sierra Leone
[Sierra Leone] A war amputee begging at the entrance of the mosque in Freetown, Nov 2004.
Tuesday, December 7, 2004
Trois responsables de l'AFRC devant la cour spéciale de Sierra Leone...
[Sierra Leone] A war amputee begging at the entrance of the mosque in Freetown, Nov 2004.
A war amputee in Freetown

It has jurisdiction over acts committed only after 30 November 1996, when an initial comprehensive peace agreement was signed between the government and the RUF, only to be followed by more war.

Those convicted are to receive jail sentences; the Court does not sentence to death.

The Court has indicted 13 people from all sides in Sierra Leone's civil war, most notably Taylor - the only non-Sierra Leonean to be indicted (though Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is mentioned in the indictment). Indictees included: From RUF - Foday Sankoh, Issa Sesay, Augustine Gbao, Maurice Kallon, Sam Bockarie From AFRC - Johnny Paul Koroma, Santigie Borbor Kanu, Alex Tamba Brima, Ibrahim Bazzy Kamara From CDF - Samuel Hinga Norman, Moinina Fofanah, Alieu Kondewa

Two of the indictees - Foday Sankoh and Sam Bockarie - have since died. With Taylor's arrest on 29 March all but one of the indictees are in custody; Johnny Paul Koroma is still at large, believed by some to have died.

Prosecution has rested in the CDF and AFRC trials, which are now at the defence stage. In the CDF case, 75 prosecution witnesses have testified, 41 in the AFRC trial.

One of the most prominent and controversial figures to be indicted is Samuel Hinga Norman, head of the CDF. Many Sierra Leoneans see him as a hero who defended the government and resent that he is being brought up on war crimes. Both Fofanah and Hinga Norman of the CDF have argued that President Kabbah should be called to testify; their motion is pending in the Court.

Reaching out to victims

The document explaining the court, 'Wetin Na Di Speshal Kot?' - 'what is the Special Court' in Sierra Leone’s Krio language, was produced by the Court's outreach section, which human rights advocates say is crucial to the Court's mission.

"One of the most important aspects of the Court has been its robust outreach effort," Elise Keppler of the Human Rights Watch international justice programme told IRIN from New York. "The Court has really gone out of its way to be accessible and relevant to the community affected by the crimes." Outreach has included town hall meetings, video showings of hearings and the distribution of booklets and films explaining the Court in simple terms.

Keppler says the Taylor trial points to the need for robust funding for the Court, which now depends on voluntary contributions from the international community – particularly for continued effective outreach should his trial be transferred to a courtroom in The Hague as the Court has requested. The Court – which has been expected to close in mid 2007 – is already facing a funding crisis. But with the arrest of Taylor, donors are expected to put up the cash necessary to carry out his trial, which could also require an extension of the Court’s term.

The Court says perpetrators of war crimes must be held accountable for the country to "truly know lasting peace." But observers and members of civil society in Sierra Leone say a number of other factors are as important for peace to take hold - reducing the country's crippling poverty, bolstering human rights protections, tackling mass youth unemployment and beating corruption.

Human rights groups say one of the most important roles for the court is to revitalise citizens' belief in the rule of law. "The Court has the potential for generating an attitudinal shift - puncturing the notion of politically powerful figures as being untouchable or above the law," says Corinne Dufka of Human Rights Watch West Africa office.

The hope, human rights groups say, is that the Court's outcome will go beyond international law and be an instrument for reinforcing national judicial systems.

The outreach booklet designed for Sierra Leonean citizens says, "One day the Court will finish its job. By then, if people are found guilty of the crimes alleged they will be punished. The Court hopes that in the future, leaders will be afraid to order people to commit serious crimes. This will help to create respect for human rights and respect for the rule of law."

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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