A UN-backed court for Sierra Leone convicted three rebel chiefs on Wednesday of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the country’s 1991-2002 civil war, including the first ever convictions for forced marriage.
The war saw bands of rebels including drug-crazed child soldiers kill, rape or chop the hands off innocent villagers in a conflict fuelled and financed by gems taken from its eastern diamond fields, Reuters reports.
Issa Hassan Sesay, Morris Kallon, and Augustine Gbao, the most senior surviving commanders of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), were all found guilty of most, but not all, of the 18 individual counts against them. All had pleaded not guilty.
“These individual leaders were responsible for some of most serious crimes known to humankind,” Chief Prosecutor Stephen Rapp said in a statement after the court handed down its verdict in Sierra Leone’s coastal capital Freetown.
Sesay, Kallon and Gbao became the first people in the world to be convicted specifically of attacks on peacekeepers and of forced marriage, described as “inhumane acts” in one of four counts of sexual violence of which all three were found guilty.
“(The court) recognizes the very deep and long lasting suffering inflicted upon women through conscription as ‘bush wives’ during the Sierra Leone conflict,” said Rapp.
“It sends a message that may deter such attacks against the men and women who are protecting individuals, restoring security, and keeping the peace across the globe,” he said.
All three were also convicted of recruiting child soldiers. Sesay and Kallon, convicted of a total of 16 out of 18 charges, and Gbao, found guilty on 14 counts, are expected to be sentenced in March.
RUF founder Foday Sankoh died in detention in 2003 while awaiting trial and his estranged deputy Sam Bockarie died the same year. The leaders of both the other major militias in the war also died or disappeared before they could be sentenced.
The Special Court, the first of its kind, was set up in 2002 to try those accused of the most serious crimes in a war that killed 50,000 people.
Wednesday’s verdict was the third collective judgment it has handed down after members of two militia groups were convicted in 2007, and was the first judgment of members of the RUF, whose rebellion triggered the conflict.
“The RUF led a campaign of terror which tore apart the lives of countless ordinary Sierra Leoneans,” said Corinne Dufka, West Africa researcher for U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.
“The countryside is dotted with villages which endured massacres, mutilations, rape and pillage on an alarming scale. Today’s important verdicts have validated this suffering, and will no doubt serve as a warning to current day perpetrators the world over,” she said.
Former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who is accused of fomenting Sierra Leone’s conflict during his own country’s brutal 1989-2003 civil war in return for diamonds from Sierra Leone’s east, is also on trial before the Special Court.
His trial is being held in The Hague due to fears that it may endanger regional stability if held in West Africa, meaning Wednesday’s convictions are likely to be the last ones handed down by the Court’s judges in Sierra Leone.