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UC Berkeley Press Release

War Crimes Center issues report on Sierra Leone court

– An international criminal tribunal in Sierra Leone, where trials are underway for atrocities committed there during the 1991-2000 civil war, is successfully engaging Sierra Leoneans in the process, but the court must make greater efforts to expedite the trials and make use of the court's novel Defense Office, according to a report issued today (Thursday, May 5) by the War Crimes Studies Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone is being closely watched by non-government organizations (NGOs), including human rights groups, because it is both structured differently from the war crimes courts for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia and housed in the West African country where the conflict occurred.

The 41-page report from the UC Berkeley center is the first to substantially assess the court's progress to date.

"The assessment is important because the Sierra Leone tribunal is seen as a 'hybrid' model that has a better chance of succeeding than its predecessors in East Timor and Kosovo," said David Cohen, director of the War Crimes Studies Center and a UC Berkeley rhetoric professor.

"The Special Court has been far more successful in integrating Sierra Leoneans into the process, establishing a cooperative relationship with the government of Sierra Leone, and in communicating the importance of its activities to the families of victims and the citizens of Sierra Leone through its outreach and public affairs programs," he said.

The tribunal is in the prosecution phase of three combined trials with three defendants each. All of the defendants are accused of playing a leading role in war crimes that took place during the decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone during the 1990s. Among the atrocities were widespread amputations, mutilations, sexual violence, mass killing, abduction and forced recruitment into armed groups, the use of child combatants, and the exploitation of Sierra Leone's diamond reserves to finance the war effort.

The nine defendants represent three factions that engaged in atrocities against civilians during the conflict. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF), an armed rebel group, invaded Sierra Leone from Liberia in 1991; the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) overthrew the government in a 1997 coup, and the Civil Defense Forces (CDF), a pro-government militia drawn primarily from traditional hunting societies, mobilized to fight against the RUF and AFRC 'rebels.'

The Special Court for Sierra Leone was established by an agreement between the United Nations and the Sierra Leonean government. Unlike better-known war crimes trials for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the Sierra Leone trials are taking place in Freetown, the capital of the country where the atrocities took place, and the chambers include local judges.

Tribunals elsewhere have been set up either against the wishes of the local government, or in a form different from the one requested by the local government. For example, the Rwandan government voted against the U.N. resolution that established the tribunal that was created in the wake of the genocide there.

Although Sierra Leone's special court lacks the financial resources devoted to the international tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, it has proved cost effective in providing trials that meet international standards for those who bear the greatest responsibility for the atrocities committed during the conflict, Cohen said.

"By limiting time and resources, and (by going after) fewer but bigger names - that's why we're looking to this kind of international tribunal as a model," Cohen said. "It can provide justice that's speedier."

Cohen said he was pleased with the new report, which also identified several areas of "continuing concern," including the court's voluntary funding and the level of resources available to the defense teams.

Other areas of concern to the War Crimes Studies Center are the absence of sexual violence counts in one case, the slower pace of some proceedings, the refusal of some defendants to attend trial or participate in their defense, and the security of witnesses.

The report highlights the benefit of the speed of the overall tribunal and the success of having a built-in defense office as part of the court's structure. It further emphasizes the steps taken by the court to engage with the people of Sierra Leone through its attention to outreach and legacy.

There are about a dozen war crimes tribunals underway around the world today. Cohen said he picked the Sierra Leone tribunal to monitor because it was not getting as much attention as others, such as the Milosevic trial or trials at The Hague. He is also involved in the war crimes trials of the Special Panel for Serious Crimes in East Timor for the same reason.

"I pick the ones where the word isn't getting out," said Cohen. "You can watch Milosevic on streaming video. It's not needed there."

The report was written by UC Berkeley War Crimes Studies Center monitors who have been attending the trials daily since proceedings began in June of 2004.