The Special Court for Sierra Leone on 25 February convicted three former leaders of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), marking the first time a court has convicted on the charge of “forced marriage”.
After a four-year trial, the tribunal found former RUF interim leader Issa Hassan Sesay and RUF commander Morris Kallon guilty on 16 of 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and former RUF chief of security Augustine Gbao on 14 counts.
All three men were convicted of forcing marriage on women. The court also set a precedent by charging all three for war crimes for targeting humanitarian and peacekeepers in direct attacks.
The prosecution argued that forced marriage should be considered a crime against humanity distinct from other forms of sexual violence such as sexual slavery because of the length of the association and its domestic nature.
“Our position is that sexual slavery is a horrendous crime,” lead prosecutor Stephen Rapp told journalists after the verdicts. “Victims would be held for days or weeks and forced into sex acts. Forced marriage is all of that plus essentially being consorts to the rebels.”
The result, he said, is stigma, with the women seen as responsible for the crimes of their “husbands”.
Rapp said the decisions marked a legal turning point. “We have essentially filled a gap in international humanitarian law. The decision will become a precedent for other cases in the International Criminal Court, and possibly act as a deterrent in future conflicts.”
Kallon and Sesay were found guilty of the deliberate and widespread conscription of child soldiers as young as eight years old; rebels used children in a number of ways, including: to support soldiers in a campaign of systematic amputation and mutilation, to spy, perform domestic labour, take part in armed patrols, or serve as bodyguards for RUF commanders.
Gbao was acquitted on this charge. “I think it’s likely that we will be appealing the majority if not all of the guilty verdicts,” John Cammegh, lead counsel for Gbao, told journalists.
Sentences are expected in March 2009, followed by an appeals process, which will mark the end of the Court’s work in Freetown. The Special Court’s trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor – accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone’s war – is ongoing at The Hague.
The Special Court was established jointly by the United Nations and the Government of Sierra Leone to try those deemed most responsible for atrocities committed during the 11-year civil war that killed up to 50,000 people.
Local reaction to the verdict was muted. In the capital Freetown people went about their daily business, selling goods along bustling downtown streets, largely oblivious.
Unisa Sesay, in his 20s, who during the war was caught in an ambush at Tombo just outside of Freetown, doubted the court’s impact on Sierra Leoneans’ daily lives.
“Jailing them will not bring back lives and property. Look at all of us. We are in the street. We have no jobs. And they are spending money on the Special Court?”
Patrick Fatoma, outreach coordinator for the Special Court, is familiar with such reactions.
“That’s not going to end,” he told IRIN. “This is a very poor country, and if people hear about money being spent by the court, even if you’re spending [it] for a good cause, they will think you should spend it on people for food.”
Fatoma tries to explain to people like Sesay that the money used to run the Special Court has been donated specifically for that purpose. “If it is not used for the court, they [the donor countries] take their money back.”
The Special Court received support from over 40 states, with Canada, the Netherlands, Nigeria, the United Kingdom and the United States providing the majority of the funds.
Fatoma said perceptions have shifted slightly. “The question [people] ask us now in our outreach events is not, ‘Why are you spending so much money on the Special Court and not giving it to the amputees and war victims?’ The question is now, ‘Why are you not trying more people?’”
Some Sierra Leoneans told IRIN that with the RUF verdict they felt they could finally move on. “I like the Special Court,” said Alpha Tommy Conteh, whose wife was killed by a stray bullet in a January 1999 rebel attack on Freetown. “It is necessary. If you don’t [have a] Special Court to bring punishment, other men will just bring war again.”