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UN to Establish Special International Court for Sierra Leone - 2002-01-16

U.N. officials and the Sierra Leonean government are due to sign an accord Wednesday, formally establishing a special international court that will try those suspected of committing atrocities during Sierra Leone's civil war.

The agreement was drafted after a team of U.N. officials arrived in Sierra Leone this month to begin preparations for the special court.

U.N. and Sierra Leonean officials say the document lays out the way the court will operate. The court will be made up of two chambers - one for trials, and one for appeals. In order to ensure the court's independence at a time when wounds from the brutal 10-year war are still fresh, the judges, prosecutors, and most of the court staff will be appointed by the international community.

The court will seek to bring justice following a conflict that was known for the ruthlessness of the combatants, whose punishments included cutting off the arms and legs of thousands of civilians, even small children. More than 200,000 people were killed in the war, which lasted 10 years.

The establishment of the court has drawn protests by members of the rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front, or RUF. Former rebels say they fear the court will allow for a witch hunt against all combatants, including those who were made to fight against their will.

Ralph Zacklin, assistant secretary general for legal affairs of the United Nations, is among those setting up the tribunal. He has told VOA only a small number of persons will fall into the court's jurisdiction.

"That means that the person concerned would have to be one who bears the greatest responsibility. In other words, it would have to have been somebody who had a leadership role or position in the conflict, whether political or military. The special court is not going to be a witch hunt. There is no way that this court can indict and prosecute more than a very small number of people. It is only established for a very limited period of time," Mr. Zacklin said.

The court will operate under international law. Those who will be put on trial will be prosecuted for crimes against humanity according to the guidelines set forth by the Geneva convention. The court will not have the power to hand down death sentences.

Among those likely to face trial is jailed RUF leader Foday Sankoh, whom many in Sierra Leone blame for pushing rebel fighters to commit atrocities against civilians. Mr. Sankoh was arrested nearly two years ago and is being held in an undisclosed location.

The special court is being established after more than 47,000 combatants laid down their weapons over the past eight months. The disarmament took place following the deployment of British troops and 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers.