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Prosecutors Win Appeal of Sierra Leone Militia Leaders' Short Sentences


An appeals panel of the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone has overturned some convictions against two pro-government Civil Defense Forces (CDF) leaders, but more than doubled their sentences and added new convictions against them. Prosecutors, disappointed by last August’s six and eight-year jail terms given Moinina Fofana and Allieu Kondewa, took their case to the appeals chamber of the Special Court in Freetown. Yesterday, the defendants saw their respective sentences boosted to 15 and 20 years, but also witnessed one murder charge and an enlistment of child soldiers accusation dropped against Kondewa. The two fighters’ earlier acquittals for crimes against humanity, however, were reversed, and they now will also serve time for a separate murder charge and for committing inhumane acts.

Attorney Elise Keppler is Counsel in the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch. She says that the significance of Wednesday’s appeals court decision is its rejection of a defense contention that Fofana and Kondewa deserve shorter sentences because they had been fighting to restore order and bring democracy to Sierra Leone.

“The decision by the appeals chamber was significant in rejecting the notion that because the perpetrators were fighting for democracy, that that was somehow an excuse or an acceptable justification to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity,” she said.

For court chief prosecutor Stephen Rapp the initial court sentences fell short of reflecting the nature of the crimes. But the trial chamber justified the lighter jail terms last August by noting the CDF’s efforts to restore order in Sierra Leone during a brutal armed conflict. Attorney Keppler says that previous verdict overlooked a longstanding principle that even in conflict, victims must receive equal protection under the law, no matter who their attackers or what their motives are.

“That ruling really goes against the grain of fundamental principles of international humanitarian law, which is that civilians should be protected regardless of why perpetrators are fighting. And had the (appeals) court gone the other way, it really would have risked victim protection, whereas instead, this decision is consistent with international law and really solidifies and bolsters victim protection for victims all over the world,” she noted.

Sierra Leone’s civil war lasted from 1991 to 2002 and involved three warring factions, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), and the Civil Defense Forces local militia. The Special Court was formed in 2002 with both international and Sierra Leonean jurists deliberating cases against suspects from all three groups who bear the greatest responsibility for high crimes committed between 1996 and the end of the war. Its highest profile case is being prosecuted at the International Criminal Court in The Hague against former Liberian president Charles Taylor, who is accused of fueling the war in a neighboring country. Keppler says that trial has been progressing smoothly.

“More than 20 witnesses have been put forth since January. And while the trial got off to a slightly bumpy start initially, due in part to concerns raised about resources available to the defense, since the new defense team was put in place and had time to prepare, things have really been moving along quite efficiently,” said Keppler.

The Human Rights Watch attorney says there are expectations of Taylor’s trial lasting for another 12 to 18 months, but it could extend even longer. The mandate of the Sierra Leone Special Court is not open-ended. International funding is needed to maintain its operations and its life term is due to expire at some unspecified future date. But Keppler says that “from the work that Human Rights Watch has done to evaluate the progress of the Special Court, our sense has been that the Special Court is really doing quite a lot to bring justice for the abuses committed in Sierra Leone, and this (appeals court) decision is consistent with this direction.”

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