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Sierra Leone Special Court Tries War Crimes

The Special Court for Sierra Leone began hearings in its new courthouse in March 2004, as it prosecuted those accused of crimes against humanity committed during the West African state's decade-long civil war

The court was created through a January 2002 agreement between the government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations.  While the conflict in Sierra Leone stretched from 1991 to 2002, the Court only intends to try crimes committed after the November 30, 1996 Abidjan Accord between the government and rebels. (For a brief history covering much of the civil war, see the BBC’s timeline.)

The carnage during the conflict included mass killings, mutilations, sex crimes, and the forcible recruitment of child soldiers. Rebel leader Foday Sankoh and his Revolutionary United Front, sponsored by former Liberian president Charles Taylor, were responsible for much of the bloodshed, but so were militias loyal to other factions and to Sierra Leone’s government. Sankoh died in 2003, while Taylor, who has been indicted by the Special Court, has sought safe haven in Nigeria.

As of early 2004, the Special Court had indicted 13 people, two of whom had died. They are charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law, as laid out in the Fourth Geneva Convention. Specifically, the charges in include murder, rape, extermination, acts of terror, enslavement, looting and burning.

The court is “mixed” or “hybrid,” meaning that judges are from both Sierra Leone and elsewhere, and that the court will try violations of Sierra Leone law as well international law. This stands in contrast, for example, to the new Iraqi Special Tribunal , which will use only Iraqi judges and prosecutors, and which was established without UN participation.

For more background on Sierra Leone’s court, see the overview from Human Rights First. For more information on the country, please see our Sierra Leone national page, and for more information on war crimes tribunals in general, see our hot topics Iraqi Special Tribunal to Try Crimes Against Humanity, Indonesian Ad Hoc Court Tries East Timor Abuse Suspects, or UN and Cambodia Agree on Court to Try Khmer Rouge.

  • Laura A. Dickinson, The Promise of Hybrid Courts, 97 A.J.I.L. 295 (April, 2003).
  • Child Soldier Use 2003:A Briefing for the 4th UN Security Council Open Debate on Children and Armed Conflict , Human Rights Watch, (January 2004).
  • Justice Undermined by Taylor’s Absence, Human Rights Watch, (March 9, 2004)
  • Celina Schocken, The Special Court for Sierra Leone: Overview and Recommendations, 20 Berkeley J. Int'l L. 436, (2002).
  • Daniel J. Macaluso, Absolute and Free Pardon: The Effect of the Amnesty Provision in the Lomé Peace Agreement on the Jurisdiction of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, 27 Brooklyn J. Int'l L. 347, (2001).
  • Nsongurua J. Udombana, Globalization of Justice and the Special Court for Sierra Leone, 17 Emory Int'l L. Rev. 55, (Spring, 2003).

Written  April 1, 2004, Updated May 18, 2007

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