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War Crimes Trial for Sierra Leone Rebels Begins - 2004-07-05

The war crimes trial of three former rebel leaders from Sierra Leone has opened in Freetown. This is the second trial to open at the United Nations-backed special court.

Three former leaders of the Revolutionary United Front, the RUF, went on trial Monday for human rights abuses during the decade-long civil war, which ended in 2002.

In his opening statement, head prosecutor David Crane said the three accused, Issa Sessay, Morris Kallon and Augustine Gbao, will be held accountable for their own actions, as well as for those of their subordinate fighters.

Mr. Crane said the men are accused of crimes that have been separated into 18 categories.

"Each of them are charged with some of the worst atrocities: rape, murder, maiming, mutilation, pillage, burning, enslavement, terrorism, you name it," he said. "These are horrific crimes, and these will each be carefully proven."

The former rebel leaders also face counts of forced marriage, a crime being considered for the first time by an international war crimes court. Prosecutors say they will call more than 170 witnesses during the trial, including women and girls who were forced to become sexual slaves.

The defendants pleaded innocent before the trial started. Their defense team blocked the prosecution's opening statement for several hours Monday with a series of objections, including an accusation that prosecutors had paid a witness.

Secretary-general Jonathan Kposowa of the RUF, which continues to exist as a political party, says the trial could spell the end of his movement.

"How can I go on with a revolution without leaders? Issa Sessay, Maurice Kallon, Augustine Gbao, all of them are in jail," he said. "For me, how can I carry on the revolution when I don't have any support?"

Two other indicted RUF leaders, Foday Sankoh and Sam Bockarie, died last year. Their alleged patron, former Liberian President Charles Taylor, has also been indicted by the court, but he remains in exile in Nigeria.

Last month, the trial of three other former pro-government militia leaders got under way, but was suspended until September after three weeks, because only four witnesses appeared. The trial was also disrupted on its first day when one of the accused, former Interior Minister Hinga Norman, fired his defense team.

The special court is due eventually to bring to trial another group of three former coup leaders, but the date has not been scheduled.