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A Former Chief Prosecutor Says Local Trials for Ugandan Rebel Leaders Could Work

It appears a confrontation is brewing between Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni and the International Criminal Court (ICC). Wednesday, Mr. Museveni said that leaders of the LRA rebels will not be tried at the ICC, but rather at traditional Ugandan courts.

The ICC has issued indictments against Joseph Kony and other members of the rebel group. Despite that, the Ugandan leader says local leaders and even victims of LRA abuse have backed the traditional court plan.

Law professor David Crane is the former chief prosecutor of the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone. He spoke to VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua about the war crimes case.

“This is the challenge of peace versus justice, particularly in the 21st Century, as you move towards a worldwide system of international criminal law. We’re going to run into these situations. And we’re at a crossroads right now related to how do we deal with these situations. I think the issue is justice. Sometimes justice may be what the victims want locally. It appears to be that this may be a solution to a standoff. However, it certainly is problematic for international criminal law and that is, does the ICC back down when it indicts individuals. I tend to think that that’s not a negative. If we can in fact have some justice in a situation where just 10 years ago it was inconceivable in some ways, then I think that as long as states step up, recognize an atrocity and want to deal with it, then I tend to say OK. Because again the question is: is the justice we seek the justice they want? As long as justice is being done in a fair and open trial, then perhaps local justice may be the solution,” he says.

The traditional trials may rely more on apologies and compensation than on punishment. Asked whether that would meet his standard of justice, Crane says, “Personally, it wouldn’t. The horror stories of 20 years-plus conflict, tens of thousands of lives ruined…. These are life sentence type of crimes. These are international crimes. However, one must be a realist and consider the overall effects.”

On another matter, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, for which Crane is the former chief prosecutor, recently reduced the sentences of two members of the Civil Defense Forces convicted of what are called “barbaric” crimes. The reason given is that these men, Moinina Fofana and Allieu Kondewa, were fighting to restore an elected government to power.

“This is still a matter being litigated. This is my own personal opinion. The key is justice…. I feel that the decision there in a general legal theory…is not a defense to international crimes, atrocities beyond description. Just because you were doing it to save the state is not a proper basis to mitigate or to acquit anyone for what took place there in Sierra Leone, West Africa, Uganda, anywhere else in the world,” he says.

Finally, Professor Crane discussed allegations made at the trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, which said Taylor forced his fighters to take part in cannibalism. Crane signed the indictment against Taylor.

He says, “It is a revelation of facts that we uncovered back when we began our initial investigations against Charles Taylor while he was sitting president of Liberia. And these are facts among tens of thousands of little vignettes [that] show the true horror of what took place in West Africa brought upon by Charles Taylor, Muammar Gaddafi (of Libya), Blaise Compaore (of Burkina Faso) and all of those minions who did their bidding to seize the diamond fields of eastern Sierra Leone for their individual criminal gain.”