By Katherine Iliopoulos
With their machetes and thirst for power, and fuelled by ‘blood diamonds,’ members of Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front killed, raped, maimed and sexually enslaved thousands of civilians during the country’s brutal civil war between 1991 and 2002.
Yet some justice appeared to be done on February 25, 2009 when the Special Court for Sierra Leone convicted three senior RUF commanders Issa Sesay, Morris Kallon and Augustine Gbao, of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In a landmark verdict in what is known as the ‘RUF Trial,’ the Court found all three guilty of the crime of ‘forced marriage.’ This marks the first time that anyone has been convicted of this crime in an international criminal tribunal.
In an 18-count indictment, The Prosecution alleged that the RUF and the AFRC (Armed Forces Revolutionary Council), acting in concert with, or under the orders of Commanding Officer Sesay, led a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population throughout the territory of Sierra Leone. The trio also faced eight counts of war crimes and two counts of other serious violations of international humanitarian law: the abduction, recruitment and use of child soldiers, and attacks against UN peacekeepers and humanitarian workers, some of whom were kept hostage and killed.
A sentencing judgment will be handed down within a month. The death penalty is not a sentencing option at the Special Court; therefore sentences must be a specified term of imprisonment.
In a previous trial – that of three former Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) leaders – the Special Court ruled that ‘forced marriage’ was a distinct crime under international law.
In February 2008, the Appeals Chamber ruled that forced marriage, as distinct from the crime of sexual slavery, fell under the category of ‘Other Inhumane Acts’ which are recognised as crimes against humanity under customary international law. The Court found that forced marriage is a crime of comparable gravity to the other crimes against humanity included in the Court’s Statute.
The Appeals Chamber found that “forced marriage describes a situation in which the perpetrator through his words or conduct, or those of someone for whose actions he is responsible, compels a person by force, threat of force, or coercion to serve as a conjugal partner resulting in severe suffering, or physical, mental or psychological injury to the victim.”
Prosecution expert Mrs. Zainab Bangura had testified in the AFRC trial that the most devastating effect of the war on the women of Sierra Leone was the phenomenon of the ‘rebel wife.’ Young girls or women were abducted by rebels and forcibly taken as wives. She told the Court that “the use of the term ‘wife’ by the perpetrator was deliberate and strategic. By calling a woman ‘wife,’ the man or ‘husband’ openly staked his claim and she was not allowed to have sex with any other person. If she did, she would be deemed unfaithful and the penalty was severe beating or death.” According to Mrs. Bangura, ‘wives’ were constantly sexually abused, physically battered during and after pregnancies, and psychologically terrorised by their ‘husbands.’
They were threatened with death if they tried to escape, and some were scarred with the initials ‘RUF’ carved into their bodies. If the women were captured by government soldiers or allied militia, they would be perceived as rebels and then killed.
Prosecutor Stephen Rapp said at the time that one of aims of the AFRC trial would be to tell the story of the victims of forced marriage “and have this established as a matter of law that these crimes were committed and that individuals were responsible.” Rapp’s desire for the establishment of a precedent has been realised in this latest verdict, which has the potential to serve as a deterrent to others committing similar crimes.
Rapp said that the RUF judgment “respects the suffering of the multitude of victims who were mutilated or enslaved, who were murdered or raped, and who were rendered homeless or destitute.” Yet according to Amnesty International, the judgment was an “insufficient step in the fight against impunity” in Sierra Leone, citing the need for investigations against many others.
The diamond-rich East African nation endured a bloody eleven-year civil war that became internationally notorious for mutilation, sexual violence, and the targeting of children. It reached its peak when rebels invaded the capital Freetown on January 6, 1999. An estimated 120,000 people were killed in the war, thousands had their arms, legs and hands hacked off with machetes.
The civil war was triggered by the launch of the RUF rebellion from neighbouring Liberia in March 1991 and backed by Liberian warlord Charles Taylor. The insurgency was driven by the ostensible aim of salvaging Sierra Leone from the corrupt All People’s Congress (APC) regime. Yet the indictment alleged that the RUF/AFRC alliance, including Sesay, were part of a joint criminal enterprise with the common criminal plan to take those actions necessary – including committing acts of violence and spreading terror – to gain and exercise political power and control over the territory of Sierra Leone, in particular the country’s abundant diamond, bauxite and titanium mines.
Many civilians were abducted and forced to work as diamond miners or as domestic labourers. The use of mutilation, by carving the initials of rebel groups onto the chests and foreheads of victims, as well as amputations, formed part of the campaign of fear designed to force the government to surrender power. The attacks were also a form of ‘collective punishment’ against the population for failing to provide sufficient support to the RUF/AFRC alliance.
On July 7, 1999, a peace agreement was signed between the government of Sierra Leone and the RUF. The Lome Peace Agreement, brokered by the United Nations’ Organization of African Unity and the Economic Community of West African States, committed the RUF/AFRC to laying down its arms in exchange for representation in a new government, the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and for a blanket amnesty under Sierra Leonean law for offenses committed by all sides. However, the United Nations indicated that the amnesty did not apply to prosecutions for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law: a position that was reaffirmed by the RUF judgment.
The war was officially declared over in January 2002 after the disarmament and demobilisation – aided by British paratroopers sent in to combat the RUF – that was envisaged under the Lome Agreement.
The phenomenon of ‘bush wives’ is not confined to the conflict in Sierra Leone. In northern Uganda, for example, an estimated 1 in 6 young girls in the war-torn country were been kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army. During Angola’s civil war, women were kidnapped from their villages by members of the rebel movement and forced into sex slavery and marriage. Forced marriages were also a feature of the conflicts in Rwanda and Cambodia.
Rape and sexual slavery also feature in cases at the International Criminal Court, including the rebellion in Uganda, the Darfur conflict in Sudan, the failed military coup in the Central African Republic and the ethnic wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Rome Statute codified for the first time in international law a number of sexual crimes used as weapons of war, such as enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilisation, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity. The convictions for forced marriage in this latest judgment have the potential to guide investigators and prosecutors at the ICC in relation to how to successfully pursue such charges.
The Special Court for Sierra Leone was also responsible for another legal precedent: its 2007 judgment in the AFRC case marked the first time that an international criminal tribunal found individuals guilty of recruitment and use of child as soldiers.
The RUF trial was the last to take place in Freetown. The trials of three former members of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and two members of the Civil Defence Forces (CDF) are complete, including sentencing and appeals. The trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor is continuing at the Special Court sitting in The Hague. However there are fears that the Court’s expected budget shortfall may lead to his premature release. According to Prosecutor Stephen Rapp, the economic crisis has led to difficulties in securing further funding for the UN-backed court. He told reporters on February 23 that should the court run out of funds “it is now possible the judges will have to release him. That’s our real anxiety.”
UPDATE– Rebels Sentenced on April 8, 2009
On April 8, 2009, the Special Court for Sierra Leone handed down sentences against Issa Sesay, Morris Kallon and Augustine Gbao. In the highest sentence given by the Court, Sesay was sentenced to a total of 52 years’ imprisonment for his 16 convictions, which are to be served concurrently. Kallon will also serve a maximum of 39 years, while Gbao will spend 25 years in prison for his crimes.
Katherine Iliopoulos is an international lawyer based in The Hague, Netherlands.
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February 25, 2009
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