Sierra Leone war court sentences 3

July 21, 2007 - 0:0

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone -- A UN-backed court sentenced three former rebel leaders to prison Thursday, the first punishments handed down by the war crimes tribunal since it was set up five years ago after Sierra Leone's decade-long conflict ended.

Judge Julia Sebutinde said the men committed ""heinous, brutal, atrocious, crimes never recorded in the history of mankind."" Alex Tamba Brima, 35, and Santigie Borbor Kanu, 42, were each given 50-year jail terms, while Brima Bazzy Kamara, 39, received 45 years. The three men were leaders of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, a junta that overthrew an elected government in 1997 and was ousted by a Nigerian-led peacekeeping force the following year. Indicted in 2003, their joint trial began in Freetown two years later. Last month, they were convicted of 11 of 14 war crimes charges, including terrorism, enslavement, rape and murder. The ruling marked the first time an international court issued a conviction on the conscription of child soldiers, who in Sierra Leone were often drugged and forced into battle. All three men have the right to appeal. If they lose, they will serve their sentences outside of Sierra Leone — most likely in Europe — because of security concerns, said Peter Andersen, a spokesman for the court. Austria and Sweden have volunteered to take them as inmates and pay their expenses. The special tribunal was set up following the end of the diamond-rich country's 10-year conflict in 2002 to prosecute war crimes. About a half-million people died in the fighting, victims of systematic mutilation in which rebels raped, pillaged and cut off the limbs of thousands of civilians. During Thursday's judgment, Sebutinde singled out the rebels' treatment of pregnant women as ""savage and inhuman, as they had their stomachs slit open while the renegade soldiers gambled whether the fetus was a girl or a boy."" Calling them ""zealous"" participants in killings and mutilations, Sebutinde said Kanu ""even gave a demonstration of amputations in Freetown"" in the 1990s. Announcing the unanimous verdict of the three judges, Sebutinde said none of the defendants had expressed genuine remorse. All three convicted men stood up as the sentences were read out, then bowed their heads. Some relatives and friends wept as they left the jammed public gallery, which was protected by police and a tiny contingent of armed UN peacekeepers — Mongolian soldiers who comprise the last remnant of a once-giant UN force that helped end the nation's war. Many in war-ravaged Freetown welcomed the verdicts. ""Justice has been done,"" said James Kamara, a retired civil servant. ""What happened (during the war) in my estimation was as a result of greed, thirst for personal power, selfishness and extreme wickedness."" ""We are relieved,"" said Pios Foray, a restaurant manager in Freetown, saying the cycle of destructive conflict had come to an end with the judgment. Human rights experts hoped the long sentences would discourage future atrocities. ""The AFRC committed unspeakable horrors against civilians,"" said Corinne Dufka, a senior researcher based in Senegal for Human Rights Watch. ""Today, the victims of these crimes have seen justice served; tomorrow, future perpetrators have been put on notice that wars have rules, and they must be respected."" Some critics, however, say the Special Court is working too slowly. It has only indicted 12 people, including former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who is charged with backing Sierra Leonean rebels and is on trial in The Hague, Netherlands. Three of those charged have died since their indictments — including rebel chief Foday Sankoh who died of natural causes in 2003 while in prison awaiting trial. Five others are awaiting verdicts in Freetown. Taylor's trial was being held outside of Freetown because of fears the case could trigger fresh violence, although it remains under the auspices of the Sierra Leone court. Taylor is also linked to brutality in his own country, but Liberians have opted for a Truth and Reconciliation commission rather than a court. __