SIERRA LEONE: Third war crimes trial starts, AFRC leaders in dock
FREETOWN, 7 Mar 2005 (IRIN) - Three leaders from a military junta accused of causing "pain and agony beyond human description" during Sierra Leone's civil war, stood in the dock on Monday as the country's third and final war crimes trial got underway.
Prosecutors said the three defendants -- Alex Tamba Brima, Brima Bazzy Kamara and Santigie Borbor Kanu -- were all part of the governing body of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) which overthrew elected president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in 1997 midway through the war and ruled for just 10 months.
During their reign and after their fall from power, the AFRC group of disgruntled soldiers joined forces with the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The alliance culminated in "Operation No Living Thing", a devastating attack on the capital in 1999 which turned the city into an "oozing grave".
"(They) swept down from the hills around Freetown and in a few weeks showed the world what this sad conflict really had degenerated into -- the rape, mutilation, maiming and murder of innocent civilians; the burning of their homes; the enslavement of the weak, women and children mostly," David Crane, the chief prosecutor, told the court in his opening statement.
"The targets of these attacks were civilians and (they) were conducted to terrorise that population but also used to punish the population for failing to provide sufficient support to the AFRC/RUF or for allegedly providing support to the government or pro-government forces," Crane added.
The AFRC trial is the last to open at Sierra Leone's Special Court, which is the first international tribunal to sit UN-appointed foreign judges alongside local ones in the country where the atrocities took place.
The court aims to punish those bearing the "greatest responsibility" for the brutal war crimes, but some of the top suspects have managed to escape its clutches.
These include Johnny Paul Koroma, the AFRC leader who went into hiding two years ago as well as the two men at the top of the RUF, Foday Sankoh and Sam Bockarie, who are now dead.
Former Liberian president Charles Taylor, indicted for war crimes in Sierra Leone, is living in exile in Nigeria and has yet to be handed over.
For some Sierra Leoneans, these high-profile absences have diminished the relevance of the trials. Others want justice, even if it is not perfect.
On Monday as proceedings began in the court's second chamber, the prosecution promised to provide a wave of witnesses who would testify to atrocities committed or ordered directly by the three AFRC defendants.
One young man would tell about being captured and taken to a rebel base at a primary school, Crane said.
"One by one they were ordered to extend their hands and one by one their hands were severed with an axe.... The cuts were not clean, he will testify, and it took four blows before his hand fell to the ground, four long blows," he told the panel of three judges, headed by Teresa Doherty of Northern Ireland.
Women would describe horrific gang rape, with sticks being inserted into their vaginas until they bled and bayonets being stabbed into their buttocks. Children would recount how the initials AFRC were carved onto their chests with a razor blade, Crane said.
The three defendants from the military junta, who have spent more than a year in detention, have been charged with 14 counts of crimes against humanity. They deny the charges.
Analysts expect the AFRC trial to wrap up later this year, but the two trials taking place in the Special Court's first chamber are expected to continue into 2006.
The first trial against the leaders of the pro-government Civil Defence Force (CDF), including former interior minister Sam Hinga Norman, began last June. The second trial against the RUF hierarchy opened in July.