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Convicted Coup Plotters Face Sentencing in Sierra Leone

In Freetown, the Special Court for Sierra Leone is scheduled to hand down sentences today to three convicted former leaders of Sierra Leone’s Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), who helped carry out a coup d’etat against President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah ten years ago. Alex Tamba Brima, Brima Bazzy Kamara, and Santigie Borbor Kanu were convicted in June on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. From New York, researcher Tania Bernath of Amnesty International says that those being sentenced may not be as high-profile suspects as former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who is also being tried by the Special Court, but learning about their 1997 actions, that toppled the Kabbah government merits the full attention of the country’s population.

“We had a meeting with (Sierra Leone Special Prosecutor) Stephen Rapp last week in London. And based on the evidence, he said these guys were highly responsible for what they’ve actually been convicted of and these are important cases. And I think what’s most important is that the information gets out to Sierra Leoneans to make sure that people understand, that they’re following the trial, the proceedings, and also they hear what’s happened in the process itself,” she said.

The Special Court trial in the Netherlands of Charles Taylor, who is also charged with 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone, has been put on hold while he works on his case with a new Court-appointed defense attorney. Britain’s Courtenay Griffiths was named by the Special Court yesterday as Taylor’s lead counsel after Taylor claimed he lacked the money to pay for a defense team. Amnesty International’s Tania Bernath says Sierra Leoneans and other West Africans should pursue the Court’s extensive media resources to learn all they can about proceedings in the Taylor trial.

“We’re going to be following the Charles Taylor trial quite closely because I think it has implications also in other countries like Liberia—not just in Sierra Leone about how their justice should proceed,” she said.

Earlier this week, the court approved the findings of a medical probe of another suspect indicted by the Special Court, Sam Hinga Norman, who died suddenly of a heart attack in Senegal in late February, just days before a court verdict was to be rendered in his trial. Bernath says her group is satisfied with the findings of the independent inquiry.

“I was in Sierra Leone when he actually died, and I spoke with some people. Obviously, everybody was surprised, and it was strange that it just happened to happen in Senegal. But I think we’re quite satisfied with what the Special Court did and they were open to an independent inquiry to reveal that there was no foul play,” said Bernath.

With general and presidential elections scheduled for next month in Sierra Leone, Bernath says it is important that voters pay attention to daily goings-on in the courtroom. But she says she does not think the trials were purposely scheduled to occur so close to the elections in order to influence their outcome.

"These cases have been going on for a long time, and they’re trying to do them as quickly as possible. I think that’s more the motive, rather than linking it to the election process,” she explains.