By a 2-1 verdict, Sierra Leone’s UN – backed war-crimes court has convicted two Civil Defense Forces (CDF) militia leaders of murder and other criminal acts committed during the country’s 11-year civil war. The split decision against Allieu Kondewa and Moinina Fofana exonerates them on charges of crimes against humanity, one of the most serious offenses facing former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who is also being tried by the Sierra Leone court. But Kondewa and Fofana, who fought alongside government forces against rebel groups during the conflict, could still face prison sentences of several decades. Attorney Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch says that this is the court’s first punishment of Sierra Leone wartime figures for colluding actively with government forces during the struggle.
“It is significant to note that Fofana and Kondewa were convicted of war crimes, including for murder, for cruel treatment, pillage, and collective punishment. Kondewa was also convicted for recruitment of child combatants under the age of 15. And these cases and the convictions in them are quite significant in that they are the first judgments in trials involving accused from government-backed militias – government-backed forces in the Sierra Leonean conflict,” she noted.
Keppler points out that one unfortunate facet of last Thursday’s verdicts is that they failed to take note of the role played by another defendant accused of government complicity in the wartime misconduct. Former government minister Sam Hinga Norman was felled by a heart ailment in February, and died just days before a court ruling was to be delivered on his alleged offenses. As for Kondewa and Fofana, Keppler says the evidence against them may not have been sufficient to win convictions on all eight counts.
“It is worth pointing out that both Fofana and Kondewa were convicted of murder as a war crime, but not as a crime against humanity. There are different legal requirements in terms of crimes against humanity and in terms of it being either systematic or widespread. And perhaps the evidence on that was not sufficient,” she says.
In terms of a jail sentence for the convicted defendants, Elise Keppler says it is hard to predict. But she says that given the split verdict, and acquittal on some charges, the panel of judges will have a range of options.
“We’re going to need to look closely when the judges deliver their sentence. It is notable that in the recent sentencing of high-level members of the AFRC (Armed Forces Revolutionary Council), another militia, the sentences were, if I remember correctly, 45 and 50 years for the defendants. So it is quite possible that there could be very lengthy sentences. On the other hand, there was acquittal on some counts, and it would be sensible for the sentencing to be affected by that,” she notes.