Prosecutors at the UN – backed Special Court for Sierra Leone say they are considering an appeal of Tuesday’s light jail sentences handed down against two pro-government Civil Defense Force (CDF) commanders. The prosecution had sought 30-year sentences against Moinina Fofana and Allieu Kondewa, who were found guilty in August of war crimes, including murder, cruel treatment, pillaging, and other criminal acts committed during the country’s 11-year civil war. Kondewa also was punished for conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 into the armed forces. But Presiding Judge Benjamin Itoe said that mitigating factors, including the CDF ‘s efforts to restore a democratically elected government, had contributed to this week’s ruling.
Attorney Elise Keppler is counsel with the International Justice Program at the watchdog group Human Rights Watch. She says the shorter sentences, which include convictions on multiple penalties, will be served concurrently, not cumulatively.
“As far as I understand it, the information from the Special Court suggests that the sentences will be served concurrently. And that means that Fofana will serve a total of six years and Kondewa will serve a total of eight years,” she said.
The court’s Chief Prosecutor Stephen Rapp said his team will consider appealing Justice Itoe’s decision over the next two weeks and objected that the sentences did not reflect the horrible nature of the defendants’ crimes. Fofana’s and Kondewa’s jail time has been back-dated to commence on May 29, 2003, the date the Special Court took the men into custody. However, Keppler says the sentencing guidelines have been shaped according to the court’s mandate to show impartiality by treating all perpetrators of heinous acts fairly and equally under the law.
“The work of the Special Court overall, from Human Rights Watch’s perspective, has made an important contribution to seeking justice for the most serious crimes committed during the Sierra Leone conflict. And by our fact-finding, the conflict was extremely brutal and involved abuses such as families being gunned down in the streets, widespread sexual abuse, child recruitment. One of the more significant aspects of the work of the Special Court is that persons associated with all of the warring factions were indicted by the court, including the Civil Defense Forces, which was associated with government forces. And that has gone a long way, from our perspective, according to local civil society groups, in demonstrating the court’s impartiality and also signals that regardless of the associations of the perpetrators, no one is above the law when it comes to these kinds of crimes, and these kinds of crimes will not be tolerated, regardless of the associations of the perpetrator,” said Keppler.
The 2-1 split guilty verdict in August exonerated Kondewa and Fofana on charges of crimes against humanity, one of the most serious offenses still facing former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who is also being tried for his role in the Sierra Leone conflict. Whether or not the current sentencing will affect the conduct of the Taylor trial, Keppler says the process sets a tone for the entire country to address its turbulent past.
“The Taylor trial is expected to start up again in January. I think the whole general process of what the Special Court has been doing has a very important impact in promoting rule of law in Sierra Leone. And the process of putting these alleged perpetrators who have not been convicted, and the administration of the trials of those associated with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) is a crucial process in rebuilding Sierra Leone, bringing redress to victims, and really sending a signal that these crimes will not be tolerated,” noted Keppler.