By Clarence Roy-Macaulay
Thursday, February 26, 2009
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone, Feb. 25 -- A United Nations-sponsored war crimes court on Wednesday found three top rebel leaders in Sierra Leone guilty of multiple crimes against humanity in the West African nation's disastrous civil war.
The rebels, known for maiming their victims with machetes, left Sierra Leone with a population of amputees, as well as countless thousands of orphans and widows.
Issa Sesay, an interim leader of the Revolutionary United Front, or RUF, and one of his battlefield commanders, Morris Kallon, were convicted on 16 of 18 counts. Another battlefield commander, Augustine Gbao, was found guilty on 14 of the 18 charges he had faced.
The charges against all three include amputation, murder, enlistment of child soldiers and sexual slavery. They also include forced marriage, the enslavement that countless young girls suffered when their villages were raided and they were forced to "marry" a rebel.
Wednesday's convictions marked the first time that the forced-marriage charge was successfully handed down in an international court of law.
Sesay, Kallon and Gbao had pleaded not guilty to the charges. They shook their heads as the verdict was read.
"While the decision issued today cannot mend the broken lives and severed limbs, it goes a long way to validate the terrible suffering endured by countless Sierra Leoneans -- and it puts current-day perpetrators on notice," said Corinne Dufka, an expert on Sierra Leone and neighboring Liberia for New York-based Human Rights Watch.
"For over 10 years, the RUF roamed the countryside, leaving a legacy of mutilation, death and destruction in their wake," she said.
It is estimated that about a half-million people were victims of killings, systematic mutilation and other atrocities in the 11-year civil war, which ended in 2002. Illicit diamond sales fueled the conflict, which was dramatized in the 2006 film "Blood Diamond," starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Rebels controlled the diamond fields and used proceeds from the sale of the gem for guns.
The rebels' founder and longtime leader -- Foday Sankoh, known as Pa to his often drugged and drunken child fighters -- died of natural causes in U.N. custody in 2003.
While Wednesday's verdicts marked the end of the special tribunal in Freetown, the court has unfinished business with former Liberian president Charles Taylor, who is being tried in a special session of the court for Sierra Leone in The Hague on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Taylor is accused of training and backing the Sierra Leonean rebels. His trial is being held outside Freetown because of fears that the case could trigger fresh violence and that Taylor might escape from the court jail in Sierra Leone.
Chief Prosecutor Stephen Rapp said a verdict in Taylor's case could be reached in the first half of 2010.