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Former Prosecutor Praises Sierra Leone Rebel Sentencing

The U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone has sentenced three former rebel leaders to decades in prison for crimes committed during the civil war. Tens of thousands of people were killed during Sierra Leone's 11-year civil war, which ended in 2002.

Issa Sesay, Morris Kallon, and Augustine Gbao, former leaders of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), were convicted in February on charges of mass murder, rape and using child soldiers. Their convictions also include the world's first by an international court for forcing women and girls into "marriages."

On Wednesday, the war crimes court sentenced Sesay, the interim leader of the RUF, to nearly 700 years in prison. But because the judge ordered that his sentences on 16 convictions of war crimes and crimes against humanity be served concurrently, he will be incarcerated for a maximum of 52 years.

Kallon will serve a maximum of 39 years in prison, and Gbao is sentenced to 25 years. The three men are the most senior commanders of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) who are still alive. The rebel group was notorious for amputating victims' arms and legs. It funded its activities in part by selling diamonds mined in Sierra Leone.

For a reaction to the verdicts, English to Africa reporter Chinedu Offor reached Professor David Crane, former chief prosecutor for the special court. He says the verdicts are very significant in efforts to deepen the reconciliation process.

"It is very important to show that those who feed on their own citizens and people are going to be held accountable. And the sentences that have come out today…send a signal to all of those individuals, warlords, thugs and leaders of countries who think they are above the law. They will now see [the] very harsh sentences that were passed down on the surviving leaders of the rebel Revolutionary United Front. Hopefully (that) will give them pause before they decide they do something again."

He says the sentences will not end the painful memories of the civil war. "Sierra Leone is a country that is slowly but surely moving out of the darkness into the light, and though I would like to say this is the beginning …certainly these sentences [are] a chapter closed. But we still have to move forward with a just, fair and open trial of one of the key ring leaders in all of these tragedies in Sierra Leone, and that is former president Charles Taylor, [whom] I indicted in March of 2003. So with that one can see at least for the work of the Special Court, that chapter is done."

Professor Crane says giving leaders of the RUF long prison terms is not adequate compensation for what he called their heinous crimes against their own people. "Certainly I can respect the pain and suffering of the victims and nothing is going to give them back their limbs, nothing is going to give them back their families, nothing is going to give them back their houses, nothing is going to give them back their homes.

"However," he says, "justice is important for a sustainable peace and hopefully, over time, these people will also have peace in their lives. But nothing can replace the horrors of they went through; however in some small way holding those accountable who were part of the tragedy of Sierra Leone from the 1990s will show that justice does reign supreme and that the rule of law is more powerful that the rule of the gun."