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Sierra Leone war crimes court to issue verdicts

A U.N.-sponsored war crimes court on Wednesday is to deliver verdicts for three Sierra Leone rebel commanders accused of crimes against humanity.
/ Source: The Associated Press

They chopped off hands, legs, lips, ears, breasts. In their decade-long battle to take control of Sierra Leone and its diamond fields, rebels of the Revolutionary United Front wielded their machetes to maim thousands of victims.

On Wednesday, a U.N.-sponsored war crimes court is to deliver verdicts for three of the rebels' commanders accused of crimes against humanity, marking an end to the special tribunal in Freetown, more than four years after their joint trial began.

"There is a great need for the activities of the Special Court, which is a chapter of the war, to be quickly concluded so that the nation can move on," Sierra Leone's president, Ernest Bai Koroma, said last week.

Former interim rebel leader Issa Sesay and battlefield commanders Morris Kallon and Augustine Gbao each face an 18-count indictment and have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them, which include war crimes and crimes against humanity. If convicted, a sentencing hearing is expected in two weeks.

Half-million victims
The special tribunal was set up following the end of the West African nation's 10-year conflict in 2002.

It is estimated that about a half-million people were victims of killings, systematic mutilation and other atrocities in Sierra Leone's war, during which illicit diamond sales fueled years of devastation. The conflict was depicted in the 2006 film "Blood Diamond," starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly and Djimon Hounsou.

Prosecutors say the three defendants facing verdicts Wednesday are criminally responsible for crimes committed by the rebels, including the mutilation of civilians, sexual violence and the use of child soldiers. The three also face charges in connection with rebel attacks on U.N. peacekeepers and aid workers.

The court has said the trial has marked the first time that forced marriage has been prosecuted before an international criminal court as a crime against humanity.

Rebel leader dies in 2003
Sesay, Kallon and Gbao were indicted in 2003 and their joint trial began in 2004. Closing arguments were heard in August and initially a judgment was expected in October, but no reason was given for the delay.

The rebels' founder and longtime leader — Foday Sankoh, known as "Pa" to his often drugged and drunken child fighters — died of natural causes in U.N. custody in 2003. An indictment against a fifth battlefield commander, Sam Bockarie, also was withdrawn in 2003 due to his death.

Wednesday's verdicts are the last of the three Special Court trials to be held in Freetown.

The court's only unfinished business is with former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who is accused of training and backing the Sierra Leonean rebels.

Taylor is being tried in a special session of the Sierra Leonean court in The Hague, Netherlands, for war crimes and crimes against humanity. His trial is being held outside of Freetown because of fears the case could trigger fresh violence and that Taylor might escape from the court jail in Sierra Leone.