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Sierra Leone to Begin Long-Awaited War Crimes Trials - 2004-06-02

The U.N.-backed war crimes court in Sierra Leone begins its long-anticipated trials on Thursday to bring to justice those accused of committing atrocities during the country's decade-long civil war. Former pro-government militia leaders will be the first to be tried.

Just a week before the court was to begin its sessions, workers were trying to finish the new 120-seat courtroom. The building is shaped like the scales of justice.

But even if chief prosecutor David Crane was worried the structure might not be ready on time, he says Sierra Leoneans are ready.

"This is a tremendous moment for the people of Sierra Leone," said Mr. Crane. "For years they have been waiting for justice. They have had an opportunity to seek the truth with the truth and reconciliation commission and now it is time for the other aspect of moving forward with the sustainable peace and that's the justice part of it."

Just a few hundred meters from the courtroom, the deputy chief of detention, Joe Truckair, is giving a tour of the cells where the defendants are waiting for their trials.

"Here we have one man per cell, we could very well have put three per cell very easily," he said. "They have good ventilation, screening up on the windows, bug spray to help keep the mosquitoes down, they got a table, chairs and they got their personal belonging in their cell, the only downside no toilet in the cell, no indoor plumbing, so you have to get a bucket."

The nine detainees, some bitter rivals during the war, spend most of their time in a small, enclosed outdoor exercise area.

A group of three former pro-government militia leaders will be tried first. They face charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for killing, looting and terrorizing civilians, as well as recruiting child soldiers.

Lawyer Sulaiman Bajan Tejan-Sie will defend former Interior Minister Hinga Norman, considered by many a savior because he led the pro-government Civil Defense Forces.

"He is a fighter, he [has] always been one," he said. "He is relentless in his efforts to prove his innocence. He will go to whatever length to prove that he is innocent of the charges he faces. He considers that he did well, he did right for his country. He stood up for his people in the defense of their community, and in the defense of democracy."

The trial of three former rebel leaders from the R.U.F, the Revolutionary United Front, is scheduled to open on July 5. The rebels also face a long list of charges, including forced marriage, an offense just recently added to international law on war crimes. The charge relates to women and girls who were abducted, raped, and forced to become what are called "bush wives" for fighters.

"All sides in the war committed horrible atrocities, including amputating the limbs of some of their enemies," he said. "Court officials say other horrors will be revealed, such as one instance when a group of pregnant women was buried alive."

A third trial has yet to be scheduled, involving former renegade soldiers from a group called A.F.R.C., which staged a coup and briefly took power in 1997.

A former peace negotiator for the rebels, Omrie Golley, wishes more people could have been tried to really end the cycle of impunity in Sierra Leone.

"I would have liked to have seen more people from the R.U.F., more people from the A.F.R.C., certainly more people from the government, diamond dealers, to governments in Abidjan, in Burkina Faso, in Libya, all these sort of areas that were involved one way or another in the whole process of the conflict in Sierra Leone. In my view, three quarters of these people still remain at large."

The court says its mandate is to use its limited funding to try those bearing the greatest responsibility. Even so, of the 13 indictments issued by the court, those widely believed to be the worst culprits are either dead, missing or living in exile.

Former rebel leader Foday Sankoh died of natural causes in U.N. detention last year. The main rebel military commander, Sam Bockarie, was killed in May last year in a shootout on the border between Liberia and Ivory Coast. Former military junta leader Johnny Paul Koroma has not been seen since December 2002.

The prosecution's number one target, former Liberian leader Charles Taylor, allegedly the main backer of the Sierra Leone rebels, has been granted asylum in Nigeria.

The chief prosecutor, David Crane, is furious Mr. Taylor has not been handed over, but he says the court will not be a failure even if Mr. Taylor is not brought to trial.

"We have taken off the streets most of the major players that took part in this tragedy," said Mr. Crane. "If we can get Charles Taylor, that would be even better, but again he is an indicted war criminal, there is an arrest warrant out for him from the Special Court, there is a red notice from Interpol that is out. He is, and will be, for the rest of his life an indicted war criminal and all nations will have an obligation to turn him over or to prosecute him."

The governments of Nigeria and Liberia have said they would like to see the peace process in Liberia consolidated before Mr. Taylor is tried.

In the meantime, despite the absence of Mr. Taylor, Sierra Leoneans are excited that many of the other main actors of the civil war will be tried. They tell visitors they hope the trials will open a new era in which law takes precedence over the power of violence in Sierra Leone.