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Sierra Leone Court to Investigate Militia Suspect's Sudden Death

The death of a reputed leader of Sierra Leone’s Kamajor militia just days before a verdict was to be rendered at his two-and-a-half year long trial has drawn expressions of regret from the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Court spokesman Yves Sorokabi says that militia chief Sam Hinga Norman’s death Thursday at a Senegalese military hospital of an apparent heart attack was unexpected.

“His death was, from what we understand, probably a heart attack, and it took everybody by surprise, including the court officials who were accompanying him to Dakar,” said Sorokabi.

On January 17, representatives of the UN-backed court transported Norman to Senegal to undergo what was described as routine hip surgery. Relatives, supporters, and human rights groups in Senegal questioned his transfer and the status of his detention in Senegal. But Norman, who had served as Internal Affairs Minister until the time of his arrest, underwent a successful operation on February 8, and was said to be recovering without complications.

“Mr. Norman was being held in all the best conditions provided under international law. His defense team never questions the conditions of his detention. He had access to the best medical facilities, and professionals that the court could provide,” said Sorokabi.

The Court representative vowed to forego any speculation about the sudden death until a full autopsy and medical report are conducted. During Sierra Leone’s civil conflict in the 1990’s, Sam Hinga Norman reportedly assumed leadership of a pro-government civil defense militia made up of traditional Kamajor hunters, supporting President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah against rebels of Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF). In June, 2004, Norman was charged on eight counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for having recruited and trained child fighters younger than 15 years of age for attacks civilians suspected of collaborating with the RUF.

“Mr. Norman was prosecuted under the legal theory of common responsibility under the accusation that he was the leader of the militia that is documented to have killed very many people. Under common responsibility, now that Mr. Norman as number one of that unit is no longer here, the Court will have to determine whether or not it wants to pursue the case of perceived leaders of that militia. Whether or not, it may be advisable for the Court to consider dropping the case altogether. Now, whatever the court decides to do, it still has to establish what happens for the sake of the victims and for the sake of the survivors,” said Sorokabi.

Sam Hinga Norman joins former RUF commanders Foday Sankoh and Sam Bockarie as suspects who have died before facing a court verdict. The fate of a fourth Special Court suspect, coup leader Johnny Paul Koroma, who disappeared years ago and has not been heard from since, is also uncertain.