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Sierra Leone special court takes narrow focus

Across Africa, the long arm of international justice is trying to end a tradition of impunity and to advance reconciliation. In poverty-stricken Sierra Leone, not everyone is convinced the money has been well spent.
Image: James Pombo, who lost his hand during a civil war in Sierra Leone, is pictured 02 April 2006 at the amputees camp near Freetown, Sierra Leone
James Pombo, who lost his hand during Sierra Leone's civil war, is pictured at a camp for amputees in April 2006.Issouf Sanogo / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Behind concrete barriers topped with coils of razor wire sits an experiment in international justice, the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Built to accommodate a public accounting of atrocities committed during the latter years of the West African nation's civil war, the well-appointed courtrooms and walls of bulletproof glass form an unlikely landmark in this battered seaside capital.

The six-year-old U.N.-backed project also stands out in a country that, like many African nations that have endured intense civil strife, has a frail national justice system. It has already led to the indictment of 13 alleged war criminals, of whom five have been convicted, at a cost of more than $150 million. But not everyone in this poverty-stricken country is convinced that the money has been well spent.

Across Africa, the long arm of international justice is attempting to end a tradition of impunity and to advance the process of reconciliation. But in some cases, such as Uganda, it has complicated homegrown efforts to achieve peace accords, which often rely on a measure of amnesty for those accused of atrocities in civil wars.

Rising resentment
Here in Sierra Leone, resentment has arisen over the millions of dollars in donor money spent on the international court. Some Sierra Leoneans say those funds could be better spent on education, health care and other pressing daily needs, or to develop a functioning national justice system that would last beyond the court's scheduled closure in 2010.

Marianna Kallon, whose right leg was amputated above the knee after she was shot during the war, and others here are also frustrated by the court's failure to punish the foot soldiers who carried out the specific crimes against them.

"I hear about it, but I don't care about it," said Kallon, 25, a mother of three who hobbles to the fortresslike judicial complex each day to beg for spare change.

The government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations jointly formed the Special Court in 2002, in the waning days of an 11-year civil war whose signature atrocity -- the mass amputation of the hands of civilians -- became an international symbol of the torment caused by West Africa's many conflicts.

The war ended at a time when momentum was building to bring international standards of justice to the prosecution of war crimes worldwide. The International Criminal Court in The Hague was also established in 2002 following models set in the 1990s by international tribunals for war crimes committed in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

But elsewhere in Africa, the push for international tribunals has complicated the resolution of essentially national disputes.

This month, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni called on the International Criminal Court to withdraw indictments against Joseph Kony and other leaders of the Lord's Resistance Army so that traditional Ugandan courts, which emphasize compensation rather than retribution, can handle the cases. Kony has said he will sign a final peace agreement with Museveni's government only if the international court suspends its warrants.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone is a hybrid of the national and international justice systems, but some Sierra Leoneans complain that the balance of power has gradually shifted toward the foreigners who are the court's most visible officials.

Funded mostly by international donations, the court is targeting not those who actually cut off people's hands, but those who bore, in the language of the court, "greatest responsibility."

The court has largely fulfilled its mandate to create a forum capable of trying political leaders. Former Liberian president Charles Taylor, the man most widely blamed for the civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone, is behind bars, indicted by the court. (He and his trial, however, were moved to The Hague for security reasons.) Twelve other people -- a who's who of the conflict's leaders -- were indicted.

‘Psychologically detached’
But some Sierra Leoneans say there have been missed opportunities to bolster the nation's own troubled national court system or to deliver a brand of justice that would make the war's victims feel their suffering had been avenged.

"They're psychologically detached from it, despite the geographical proximity" of the court, said Ansu B. Lansana, secretary general of one of Sierra Leone's political parties and a former attorney for two of the convicted defendants. "People really hardly talk about it."

The court's indictment of Taylor was crucial in forcing him from power in August 2003, bringing a long-awaited peace to neighboring Liberia, many analysts in the region say. Taylor's arrival in Freetown aboard a U.N. helicopter in March 2006, after a period of exile in Nigeria, is remembered as the emotional high point for the Special Court. Thousands of Sierra Leoneans lined the streets, even climbing onto rooftops to watch.

During its six years of operation, only a tiny percentage of Sierra Leoneans have ever visited the court, which is surrounded by walls and a series of heavily guarded gates. Those who do venture in find a place that looks and feels like a U.N. facility anywhere in the world, complete with gun-toting, blue-capped soldiers and a cafeteria menu dominated by pizza and hamburgers.

"The ownership is not there," said John Caulker, executive director of Forum of Conscience, who travels widely in Sierra Leone to speak with war victims. "There's no way you can call that a court for Sierra Leoneans when most Sierra Leoneans can't even access the court."

The type of justice practiced there, behind floor-to-ceiling bulletproof glass that makes the courtrooms appear like enormous aquariums, has also left many Sierra Leoneans puzzled.

Leaders of the Civil Defense Forces, regarded by many in Freetown as valiant defenders of their city against vicious rebels, have seen their misdeeds prosecuted with as much zeal as those of the attackers. And even the worst crimes cannot result in the death penalty, which is generally popular among Sierra Leoneans.

The most common complaint here about the court is the cost. More than $150 million has been spent on prosecutions. By the time the court finishes its work in 2010, the total cost is projected to reach $212 million -- a massive sum for a country that the United Nations ranks as the least developed in the world.

"The money they have spent for the courts is [worth] nothing," said Kallon, as her two older children, Christiana Johnson, 7, and Michael Johnson, 3, lingered nearby. "My foot is gone, and it's not coming back." It would have been better to use the money, she said, "to educate my kids."

Court officials say they have aggressively reached out to Sierra Leoneans through community meetings, radio broadcasts and information booklets that declare "No Peace Without Justice."

Lead prosecutor Stephen Rapp, an American, said Sierra Leoneans who want lower-ranked perpetrators brought to justice should urge their members of parliament to encourage the national court system to act.

Little political will
Within Sierra Leone, however, there is little sign of the political will to try a broader group of war criminals.

Mamusu Thoronka, 41, a trader and mother of six, still vividly recalls how a small band of rebels retreating from Freetown in 1999 pressed her left arm to the floor and hacked off her hand with a machete. A second whack on her right wrist severely damaged but failed to fully detach her other hand, which was reattached by a surgeon several days later.

"The Special Court is there to ensure that what has happened will not happen again," said Thoronka, who has been selected as a possible witness in the Taylor trial. But like other victims, she has little faith that those who cut off her hand will ever face justice. Her far more urgent concern is figuring out how to feed her family, now that she has only two functioning fingers on a single hand. Washing clothes, preparing food, even dressing herself is a struggle.

Some Sierra Leoneans say that the vast majority of war crimes could have been prosecuted in the courts here with more international help, including bringing judges from other countries with legal systems derived, like Sierra Leone's, from British common law.

"In the outside world, you can think of Charles Taylor as the link," said Jabati Mambu, 24, secretary of the Amputee Association of Sierra Leone. "But here there are actual perpetrators. The actual people need to be punished."