Sierra Leone war crimes court convicts three former guerrilla leaders

The Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) Feb. 25 found three former guerrilla leaders guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity for their roles in the country’s civil war. Issa Hassan Sesay, Morris Kallon, and Augustine Gbao are the three highest-ranking surviving Revolutionary United Front (RUF) leaders, after founder Foday Sankoy died before being tried in 2003. Of 18 charges, Sesay and Kallon were found guilty of 16 offenses and Gbao was found guilty of 14 offenses.

The SCSL was unable to convict any of the three men of murder or taking hostages, and Gbao was also found not guilty of conscripting child soldiers or murdering peacekeepers because his alleged actions were not sufficiently widespread and systematic to rise to the level of war crimes or crimes against humanity. The SCSL also held that they were not responsible for the January 1999 attack on Freetown which resulted in over 5,000 deaths. The three are expected to be sentenced within in one month. The SCSL announced last week that this ruling would be its last.

The Sierra Leone civil war ended in 2002 after eleven years, during which the RUF allegedly killed and mutilated civilians, forcibly recruited child soldiers, and forced many from their homes as villages were burned and destroyed. In 2002, the UN and Sierra Leone jointly established the Special Court to try the leaders believed to be responsible. In October 2007, the SCSL sentenced two former leaders of the Civil Defense Forces to serve six to eight years for “murder, cruel treatment, pillage, and collective punishment.” In July 2007, three former leaders of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council were sentenced to 45 years imprisonment on counts of rape, murder, mutilation, pillage, and abducting children to force them to work as soldiers and diamond laborers. (Jurist, Feb. 26)

Meanwhile, SCSL prosecutor Stephen Rapp told Reuters that lack of court funds due to the global economic downturn may require the release of former Liberian President Charles Taylor. The SCSL has charged Taylor with 11 counts of crimes against humanity for his involvement in the Revolutionary United Front. The SCSL’s budget comes entirely from individual donations, and it expects a shortfall of close to five million dollars. Without sufficient funding, the judges in the case may be forced [Guardian report] to release Taylor from custody. Should he be set free, the indictments would stand, leaving open the possibility for further legal action.

Earlier this month, officials had announced that they expected the court to render a verdict by 2010, despite the SCSL’s ongoing financial troubles. After complaints of prejudice in 2007, the SCSL increased Taylor’s defense funding to $100,000 a month. Taylor claims to be indigent, but critics argue that he has millions of dollars hidden in African banks. (Jurist, Feb. 25)

See our last post on West Africa and Sierra Leone.

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