Sierra Leone war-crimes court tests new model for justice

The trial of three rebel leaders began Monday.

Outside the still-unfinished war-crimes court complex here, Lamain Jusujark greets friends by offering them a shake of the metal hook that serves as his right hand.

Mr. Jusujark, who had both hands amputated by the notorious Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels during the Western African country's 10-year civil war, says he is looking forward to seeing RUF leaders face justice. "It's important to set an example," he says. "So no group of people will take up arms, go into the bush, and commit atrocities against innocent civilians."

The long-awaited trial of three RUF commanders began on Monday, with prosecutors describing their acts as a "tale of horror." But the court's approach is proving controversial: only a handful of rebels will be tried; and many people are unhappy with the decision to prosecute alleged leaders of the Civil Defense Forces (CDF), a progovernment militia that fought the RUF and was regarded by many people as a liberating force.

Set up to avoid some of the complexity that has undermined United Nations tribunals for Bosnia and Rwanda, the Sierra Leone court has become a test - one that some say could itself fail - of a new model for international justice.

"The idea is a good one," says Akin Macauley, a businessman here. "But I don't think the court has been able to get all those we believe are involved."

The court, established jointly by the Sierra Leone government and the UN, began work two years ago with a mandate deliberately limited in both time and judicial scope. It is supposed to finish its work in three years and to try only those people bearing "the greatest responsibility" for the war - in which rebels occupied Sierra Leone's diamond-mining region and tried to overthrow the elected government.Only crimes committed between December 1996 and the war's end in January 2002 are being considered, even though the conflict began in March 1991.

A second innovation is the court's funding. Instead of relying on UN funds alone (and its slow-moving bureaucracy), the court sought contributions from individual countries. Funding from 33 nations totaled about $50 million with the biggest donors including the US, Britain, and the Netherlands. But bilateral donations proved insufficient, and the UN had to step in with an emergency infusion of cash.

Critics of the court have attacked its limited mandate, arguing that it allows many of those responsible for horrendous crimes, including kidnapping children and killing pregnant women, to escape punishment. "We have battlefield commanders who were directly in charge of these combatants," says John Abu, a journalist based in Bo, a town once held by rebels. "We would have loved to have seen some of these battlefield commanders prosecuted."

Of further concern is the absence of many of its highest-profile indictees. Two RUF leaders have died while Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president who is accused of supporting the RUF, is in exile in Nigeria. And Johnny Paul Koroma, leader of an infamous junta that took power for nine months after a 1997 coup, is at large.

These absences have focused attention and controversy on the trial of three alleged leaders of the progovernment CDF, including Samuel Hinga Norman, a former deputy defense minister and interior minister. The prosecution alleges the CDF killed thousands of people, including the massacre of 65 alleged rebel collaborators.

Many observers say Mr. Norman's trial, which began last month and has been adjourned, could continue to be rancorous, given his heroic status among many people. David Crane, an American and the court's chief prosecutor, told the court it is important that Norman stand trial because he was responsible for the "perversion of a just cause." Mr. Crane says it is equally crucial that Mr. Taylor be held accountable.

"The bottom line is African leaders are terrified of the indictment," he says. "It's a breach in the wall of impunity." Some diplomats argue that extraditing Taylor would be seen as reneging on a deal made last year for him to step down peacefully in exchange for asylum. His extradition might hamper future attempts to persuade dictators to end conflict peacefully, some observers say, although human rights groups dispute this and say establishing the principle of accountability would help deter future atrocities.

The most critical test is whether the court can help the peace process in Sierra Leone and become a model for other states recovering from civil war. For Jusujark, the court's success would be an essential part of reconciliation in a society divided by a decade of terrible crimes. "We find the court very necessary," he says. "If no example is set, maybe the same people will take arms and commit the same atrocities."

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