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Testimony Begins in Sierra Leone War Crimes Trial - 2004-06-15

The special court on war crimes in Sierra Leone is finally hearing testimony, nearly two weeks after it first opened a case against leaders of the former pro-government militia.

Chief defendant, former Deputy Defense Minister Sam Hinga Norman appeared before the war crimes court in Sierra Leone on Tuesday to defend himself against charges of crimes against humanity he allegedly committed during the decade-long civil war.

A spokeswoman for the Special Court, Alison Cooper, says Mr. Hinga Norman is facing a number of serious charges.

"Crimes against humanity and international crimes are the ones. There is quite a range of them," she said. "There's the recruitment of child soldiers and that's quite an interesting one because our appeals chamber ruled on that that it was actually a crime under international laws to recruit child soldiers. He's also being charged with murder or unlawful killings, physical violence and mental suffering, looting and burning and terrifying the civilian population in collective punishment."

Ms. Cooper says Mr. Hinga Norman is representing himself, but there are lawyers standing by to assist him.

In his opening statement Tuesday, he argued the U.N.-backed court is infringing on the authority of Sierra Leone's own judiciary. He also claimed it was unclear whether the Geneva conventions on war crimes applied to civil wars. The court rejected both arguments earlier.

Ms. Cooper says about 160 witnesses will testify during the trial, some of whom will be shielded from the public.

"The way the courtroom is structured is it's a circular room and the public gallery sits in a sort of semi-circle slightly elevated overlooking the courtroom. There is a witness protection box, which makes it impossible for the public gallery to see it," she explained. "The judges are able to see the witness and so are prosecution and defense but in certain circumstances there will be voice distortion and they may also be obscured from view."

The Special Court was set up to punish those responsible for the tens of thousands of deaths and maimings that took place during the decade of civil war. So far, 11 people are under indictment, including former Liberian President Charles Taylor.