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Sierra Leone Jailed Rebel Leader to Face Trial Next Month

The murder trial of rebel leader Foday Sankoh opened Wednesday in Sierra Leone's capital city, Freetown. But the trial was immediately adjourned until next month. The judge in the case says he postponed proceedings to give more time for the defense to prepare its case.

The charges against Foday Sankoh stem from a May 2000 incident in which his bodyguards fired on demonstrators outside his home in the Sierra Leonean capital, killing more than 20 people.

The case is not related to the atrocities that Mr. Sankoh allegedly led his followers to commit against civilians during Sierra Leone's brutal, 10-year civil war. The matter of war crimes will be taken up by a United Nations special court that is being set up under the terms of a 1999 peace agreement.

Mr. Sankoh and 49 members of his Revolutionary United Front rebel group face 70 charges in the Sierra Leonean court. Sierra Leone's new Justice Minister Eke Halloway has said he will push for the maximum penalty.

"He has been in breach of the laws of this country, committed crimes within the laws of this country and so he is facing trial within the local courts. So, it's important and necessary that he faces trial in our courts. We don't know what will happen in the special court. But as for now, offenses have been committed which are offenses of Sierra Leonean origin. They are offenses of murder, conspiracy to murder, and shooting with intent to murder. He must go through the process of the law," he said.

The justice minister said Mr. Sankoh faces a mandatory death sentence if he is found guilty.

Many Sierra Leoneans harbor resentment toward Foday Sankoh and the rebels for the extent of the atrocities they committed against civilians.

That resentment was evident in presidential and legislative elections last month, when the former rebels' political group, the Revolutionary United Front Party, received very low support - even in districts that were considered rebel strongholds.

Foday Sankoh appeared in the courtroom Wednesday sporting his now trademark dreadlocks and looking - as he has for the past several months - haggard and thin.

In remarks to journalists after the session, he said he believed himself to be God, and the leader of Sierra Leone.