Arusha, December 3, 2013 (FH) – The Special Court for Sierra Leone on Monday handed over its premises to the government in Freetown, thus winding down after trying eight former Sierra Leonean militia leaders and former Liberian President Charles Taylor. Now its court house will house the Supreme Court of Sierra Leone. The Special Court’s residual functions will be carried out by a smaller structure.

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On the same day, 16 judges who will sit on this residual mechanism were sworn in. The ceremony was attended by Sierra Leonean Justice Minister Franklin Bai Kargbo and United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs Miguel de Serpa Soares. Ten of the judges were appointed by the UN and six by the Sierra Leone government.  The judges will work on an ad hoc basis (not full-time). They may be called upon to review convicts’ applications for review of their judicial conditions or to preside over any contempt of court proceedings. The residual mechanism will also be responsible for overseeing continuation of witness protection.

A hybrid tribunal

The Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) is the first international tribunal to have completed its work since Nuremberg. It was set up by the UN and the Sierra Leonean government in July 2002 to bring to justice those presumed most responsible for violations of international humanitarian law during the civil war in Sierra Leone. Unlike the UN tribunals for Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, the SCSL was a hybrid or mixed tribunal combining international and Sierra Leonean law, based in the country where the crimes were committed. This Court, which has so far cost about 280 million dollars, was not funded by the UN but by voluntary contributions from the international community.

In March 2003, the SCSL indicted 13 people. In addition to Charles Taylor, they included notably Foday Sankoh, who was head of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF); Johnny Paul Koroma, who led the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC); and Sam Hinga Norman, who was Coordinator of the Civil Defense Forces (CDF, a pro-government militia). But in December 2003 the Prosecutor had to withdraw the indictments against Sankoh and another RUF commander, Sam Bockarie, after their deaths. According to international organizations, the civil war in Sierra Leone left some 120,000 people dead and thousands of civilians mutilated. 

Convictions for using child soldiers

It was on June 20, 2007, that the SCSL handed down its first judgment. Three former AFRC leaders were found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Alex Tamba Brima and Santigie Borbor Kanu were both sentenced to 50 years in jail, while Brima Bazzy Kamara got 45 years. For the first time in the history of international justice, the former rebels were convicted for conscripting child soldiers. As for Koroma, he is considered to have died while fleeing justice, although his remains have never been produced. In the trial of the CDF leaders, Moinina Fofana and Alieu Kondewa were in August 2007 found guilty of war crimes. Six months earlier their co-accused Sam Hinga Norman, a former Interior Minister, had died. After getting light sentences from the lower court, Fofana was convicted on appeal to 15 years in jail, while Kondewa got 20 years. In the trial of the RUF commanders, Issa Hassan Sesay was sentenced to 52 years imprisonment, Morris Kallon 40 years and Augustine Gbao 25 years. The 52-year sentence on Sesay, who was the interim commander of the RUF, is the SCSL’s heaviest sentence.

“A strong signal to all leaders”

All eight of these convicts are currently serving their sentences in Rwanda. But the most famous SCSL convict no doubt remains Charles Taylor. He is the first ex-head of state to have been tried by an international tribunal since the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders after the Second World War. In its judgment, the SCSL found Taylor guilty of providing financial and logistical support to Sankoh’s RUF rebels, knowing that they would use it to commit a multitude of crimes. Taylor, who wanted diamonds in return, was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. After his conviction was confirmed on September 26, Taylor was transferred to a jail in the UK to serve his 50-year sentence. On the day of the lower court judgment on April 26, 2012, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon hailed it as historic, saying it “sends a strong signal to all leaders that they are and will be held accountable for their actions.”