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Sierra Leone Trials Frustrate Activists

Proceedings against a former rebel leader have resumed at the Special Court for Sierra Leone in Freetown, even as the court's slow pace is frustrating human rights activists. VOA's Nico Colombant reports from Dakar.

Revolutionary United Front commander Issa Sesay took the stand Thursday, saying he had been recruited by the late Foday Sankoh, thinking he was getting a job in a restaurant in Burkina Faso.

He now fights against 18 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the devastating 1990s war, marked by the use and abuse of child soldiers and the mutilation of victims.

With him in the Freetown dock are two other former rebel leaders, Morris Kallon and Augustine Gbow.

The trial started nearly three years ago.

Sankoh died while in custody, but Special Court head prosecutor Stephen Rapp, says the case is still significant.

"We are dealing here in this case with people who were very important commanders according to the evidence that we presented of the RUF forces, very active in the command of that organization. Of course, for substantial periods of the war, Sankoh was in custody himself, so these were active leaders, according to our evidence," said Rapp. "It would be possible in this case for the story fundamentally to be told and for those who are living who were at the very senior ranks to be held responsible, if the judge so finds, based on the evidence that has been presented."

In addition to Sankoh, a main militia leader also died in custody, another rebel leader was killed before he was caught, while another infamous indictee, a former junta leader, is at large.

Sesay said Thursday allegations against him are rumor and folklore.

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor, initially given exile in Nigeria but then arrested, is due go on trial next month. His trial was moved from Freetown to The Hague, due to security reasons.

London-based African human rights activist Ibrahima Kane laments the fact the cases have dragged on, that Taylor is being tried outside West Africa, and that there are so few indictees.

"A lot of money has been spent to try to deal with one of the biggest atrocities that Africa apart from the genocide in Rwanda has faced, but up to now there is nothing that has been done to show that we are really trying to sort out the problem in the country. Nothing. Nothing," said Kane. "Have you seen any important trial? Nothing, nothings has been done."

Kane believes West Africa should not let this historic opportunity pass.

"We cannot continue to just sit down and look at this tribunal failing to really prosecute and to really do its work. It is really important that if we create an institution to deal with an important problem like the atrocities committed in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, we have to make sure that justice is done," he said. "If justice is not done, all these commissions, truth and reconciliation commissions, will be rubbish. Because people will think that as far as these people are still there, they may escape one day and start again what they only know, it is killing, it is abducting, it is raping, it is doing all these atrocities and today nothing has been done to change that reality."

Officials in Freetown invariably remind critics the Special Court's mandate is to bring to justice those who bear the greatest responsibility for crimes committed in Sierra Leone after late 1996. They say that is being done with those caught and alive at the fastest possible speed, given the complexities of the court's set-up, problems with staff and funding.

Head prosecutor Rapp says many notable developments should actually take place in the weeks ahead.

"We are busy in Freetown for this case. We anticipate for this month or next month to have judgments in our two other big cases that we have tried over the course of a couple of years here in Freetown," he said. "So we will have those judgments and then if there are convictions then there will have to be sentencing proceedings and also presumably the appeals. So things will get very busy in Freetown at the same that we are proceeding with the Charles Taylor trial scheduled to commence in the Hague on the fourth of June."

Court officials say they will try to make the Charles Taylor case as media accessible as possible to people in Sierra Leone, even if it will take place in Europe.

What is called a pre-trial conference is scheduled to take place Monday in Freetown and may continue into Tuesday.