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War Crimes Trial Starts in Sierra Leone

  • Gabi Menezes

Three members of Sierra Leone's former military government have gone on trial for crimes which include murder, rape, sexual slavery, and use of child soldiers.

Alex Tamba Brima, Brima Bazzy Kamara, and Santigie Borbor are alleged to have been part of the group of 17 men who carried out a coup in 1997, and later were members of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, which is accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The lead prosecutor for the Special Court, David Crane addressed his opening statement to a packed courtroom, filled with many people who had been raped and brutalized during Sierra Leone's civil war.

Mr. Crane said that in a decade of painful and horrific warfare, the three defendants' intense criminal actions over a relatively short period of time took suffering to a new dimension, and traumatized the entire nation.

A journalist who attended the opening day of the trial, Lansana Fofana, said the atmosphere in the courtroom was very tense and emotional as it brought back memories of the 11-year civil war that killed 50,000 people.

"People's hands were chopped off, there were lots of amputations, people were gruesomely murdered," he said. "So the anger is still boiling over in many people, especially victims. But on the other extreme there are people who think that because peace has been won - [a] very, very difficult peace process - they do not want to see the perpetrators to be punished. They do not want to see the special court because they believe it could easily become a flash point for another conflict."

Testimony from people during the trial will include a man who had his hands chopped off by AFRC forces, and a woman who was gang raped along with her daughter. AFRC and the rebel Revolutionary United Front formed a coalition government shortly after the coup. Their armed forces are accused of carrying out a campaign of terror against civilians.

Thirteen people were originally indicted by the court, but only nine will stand trial. The former leader of the AFRC Johnny Paul Koroma is missing. RUF leader Fodoy Sankoh is dead, while ex-Liberian President Charles Taylor, who is accused of supporting Sierra Leone's RUF rebels, is in exile in Nigeria.

Corrinne Dufka, a researcher for the New York-based group Human Rights Watch, believes that the U.N. backed Special Court is already a success, by simply holding the trials of the nine people in the court's custody.

"On a wider scale, I think it is also been important because it has rejuvenated Sierra Leoneons believe in the whole concept of justice, which of course, justice was in large parts politicized in Sierra Leone," she said. "The judicial system, even the police as an institution have over the years, in a large part failed the people."

Unlike the war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, the Special Court for Sierra Leone is based where the alleged crimes occurred, so many Sierra Leoneons can go to the trials. The court draws on both national and international law.