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Sierra Leone: War Crimes Court Begins First Trial - 2004-06-03

A special war crimes court in Sierra Leone has begun the first trial of suspects accused of committing atrocities during the country's 10-year civil war.

The trial of three former pro-government militia leaders got under way in Freetown Thursday morning, after a delay of several hours because of problems with the sound system at the special U.N.-backed war crimes court.

The three defendants, former interior minister Sam Hinga Norman, and two former leaders of the CDF, Civil Defense Forces, Allieu Kondewa and Moinina Fofana, face charges of unlawful killing, torturing, forced conscription of children and other crimes against humanity.

Sierra Leone's civil war was marked by brutality by all sides, including the maiming of civilian victims and the use of child soldiers.

In his opening statement, chief prosecutor David Crane said that one of the issues that will be his main focus is child soldiers.

"Throughout the trial, we will bring in children who fought in the CDF, who will recount story after story of alleged horrors they committed," he said. "Part of a lost generation on both sides of this conflict, they will bravely come forward to tell the world the tragic tale of the child soldier in Sierra Leone."

Before the trial started, defense lawyer Sulaiman Bajan Tejan-Sie said that, if his client, Mr. Norman, who led the CDF militia, is found guilty, it could set a bad precedent for West Africa, where rebel insurgencies are frequent.

The CDF were seen as heroes, those who stood for their communities and those who defended democracy. If for any reason they are found guilty, then that would be a bad omen, because no one in the future will stand up to fight against any rebels, if the situation would occur again, because everybody would be reluctant to sacrifice.

"The group trial of three former rebel leaders, who started the war in 1991, begins on July 5, while three former renegade soldiers who staged a coup in 1997 will be tried later," said David Crane.

The main suspects, however, are not being tried. Two of the leading rebel leaders, Foday Sankoh and Sam Bockarie, who were also indicted, died last year, while the 1997 coup leader, Johnny Paul Koroma, has not been seen since December 2002.

The prosecution's Number-One target is former Liberian leader Charles Taylor, who is accused of being the main backer of the Sierra Leonean rebels, but he is now living in exile in Nigeria. Prosecutors say foreign governments are negotiating with Nigerian authorities to try to have Mr. Taylor handed over to face his own trial.