Sierra Leone's war crimes tribunal defied history by going after the victors, not just the losers, of the country's civil war. Rebuilders of Iraq are taking notice.
ONE DAY LAST MARCH, SAM HINGA NORMAN, then the minister of state security for Sierra Leone, was sitting at his desk when a dozen uniformed police grabbed the guards outside the ministry. The police snuck in through a back hallway and barged into Norman's office, pistols and automatic weapons drawn. Norman wasn't allowed to answer his cellphone when it rang. A police officer read a warrant for his arrest. He stood accused of overseeing murder, terror, amputations, and the conscription of children.
Norman was spirited off to a waiting van. Within an hour, a helicopter flew him to a secret prison. There, he was transferred into the custody of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a tribunal set up by the United Nations with cooperation by the country's government.
If the 63-year-old minister was stunned by his arrest for crimes against humanity, he wasn't alone. Norman is a military hero who helped end Sierra Leone's horrific decade-long civil war early last year. His government militia, some of whom were known as the Kamajors, or Hunters, beat back the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front, who had caused some of the worst carnage in recent history. The strife left at least 50,000 dead, thousands mutilated, and half the West African nation's population of roughly 5.1 million displaced. Elected after the war's end, the current government, which has earned praise for its cooperation with U.N. peacekeepers, might not exist today were it not for Norman and his Kamajors.
Yet the Kamajors also launched ruthless assaults of their own. They are blamed for tortures, rapes, and prisoner executions, sometimes in the militia's headquarters. Semiautomatic weapons in hand and bullet belts wrapped around their often-shirtless bodies, they seized control of a large chunk of the country, which lies on the Atlantic coast between Guinea and Liberia. According to Norman's indictment, his forces enlisted children in their early teens and targeted civilians, including women and children. The Kamajors allegedly left behind a trail of "bodies, mutilated victims and . . . looted property" as they "shot, hacked . . . or burnt" their victims on suspicion of collaborating with the RUF rebels. Some Kamajors are said to have eaten the livers or hearts of slain enemies to ward off bullets.
Most Sierra Leoneans take such atrocities as a given; though numerous newspapers rallied in Norman's defense, only a few refuted the charges against him. The surprise of his arrest wasn't that a government minister might have committed these crimes. It was that a victor could be held to the same standards as the defeated.
War-crimes tribunals are often seen as exercises in victor's justice because of the difficulty inherent in prosecuting those who remain in power. No Allies were prosecuted at Nuremberg after World War II. In Afghanistan today, Taliban chiefs are far more likely to face prosecution than the regional warlords or Northern Alliance leaders in the new U.S.-allied government, even though some of these new allies allegedly caused the deaths of hundreds of prisoners of war by imprisoning them in sealed metal cargo containers.
The U.N. created the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which is expected to begin hearing cases in October, at the invitation of Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, the Sierra Leonean presidentand the man who appointed Norman as minister of state security. Kabbah originally asked the U.N. Security Council for a court that would try rebel leaders. But with the U.N. sponsoring Sierra Leone's $2 billion peacekeeping effort, the Security Council decided that the court should prosecute those "most responsible" for the carnage that followed a 1996 amnesty, regardless of their political or military affiliation.
In light of the evidence against the Kamajors, Prosecutor David M. Crane concluded that he had to pursue their leader, no matter how much respect Norman holds. "One can be a hero and love one's country, but still be held accountable for violating the law," Crane said recently. By charging Norman with eight counts of war crimesincluding unlawful killings, causing physical violence and mental suffering, looting and burning, terrorizing civilians, and use of child soldiersthe prosecutor wants to show that there are consequences even for the wrongdoers who seem beyond reach.
THE SIERRA LEONEAN CAPITAL OF FREETOWN was once known as the "Athens of Africa" for its prestigious university, majestic government edifices, and tourist-friendly beaches. Now the government buildings are burned-out shells. Buzzards lurk on empty-socketed light poles, a relic of the ruthless rebel takeover of 1999 that left a feast of corpses rotting in the streets. Following the ouster of the RUF rebels by international forces soon after, a round of revenge killings produced fresh meat for the buzzards. Four years later, parts of Freetown remain a mess of gutted car frames, razor wire, and smoldering trash heaps.
Despite rich diamond deposits in its eastern soil, Sierra Leone is among the world's poorest nations. It ranks last on the U.N. human development index, which tracks factors like life expectancy, education, and per capita income. The nation struggles with rampaging AIDS and a 70 percent illiteracy rate. Corruption affects nearly every level of government, siphoning off international aid and government funds. The war itself was in large measure a legacy of the graft: Though rebel leaders were themselves corrupted by the diamond trade, they tapped into the vast pool of those who sought a fairer distribution of the nation's wealth and a more responsive government.
The legal system was in shambles when President Kabbah asked the U.N. for a war-crimes tribunal. Many judges and lawyers had fled during the war, leaving the national courts without the manpower and expertise to handle the prosecution of the country's biggest troublemakers. So the Special Court is a hybrid of the international and the domestic. It is using international and Sierra Leonean prosecutors and judges and adapting laws culled from other war-crimes tribunals abroad. The idea is to make the court a building block of a reconstructed legal system. "We are still stumbling toward finding the best procedures for trial," said Geoffrey Robertson, a leading English human rights lawyer selected by Sierra Leone to head the court, in his London office.
Like most war-crimes tribunals, the court is charged with going after the big fishor "Kakatua" in the Sierra Leonean language of Kriorather than their underlings who raised the axes and fired the guns. This is accepted by Sierra Leoneans, largely because many of the atrocities were committed by kidnapped children who had been brainwashed, drugged, and terrorized into becoming tools of their bosses. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been set up separately from the court to allow victims to tell their stories, to accept low-level perpetrators' confessions, and to help reintegrate perpetrators into their villages and neighborhoods.
In the eyes of its international backers, the Special Court's main asset is the lean approach it offers to postwar justice. The court's annual budget is $19 million, in contrast to the $100 million annual cost of each of the U.N. tribunals in The Hague and Tanzania, which prosecute accused war criminals from the Balkans and Rwanda, respectively. And while those courts have no set end dates, the Special Court is scheduled to shut down at the end of 2005. The tribunal's three-year clock started ticking in 2002, even though construction on the courthouse hadn't yet begun.
While the U.N. created the Special Court, the organization doesn't control it. That makes it potentially appealing to the Bush Administration, which stridently rejected the International Criminal Court established at The Hague last summer. Of the 30 countries that volunteered funding, the United States is the Special Court's top contributor (at $5.2 million a year). It was after strong U.S. lobbying that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan selected Crane, an American, to serve as chief prosecutor. Crane has extensive experience as a lawyer in the Department of Defense, though he emphasizes his independence from Washington.
Crane casts the Special Court as a quick and affordable prototype that can bring justice to countries with discredited legal systems, without the high cost or sluggish pace of the courts for the Balkans and Rwanda. As Washington looks for a framework in which to try accused Taliban, Al Qaeda, and Iraqi leaders, Crane's talk of a "next-generation tribunal" is of unusual interest. The Bush Administration is already citing the Special Court as it contemplates the shape of justice in Baghdad.
UNLIKE ITS PREDECESSORS, the Special Court was created at the invitation of the country it concerns and is based there. This allows victims to see justice being done, which is of great significance in a country where powerful men like Norman have never been brought to justice. The set up has risks as well as benefits, though. Robertson talks about holding trials in a battleship off the coast of Freetown in the event of a new round of fighting. "One reason that the Rwanda tribunal isn't in Kigali [Rwanda's capital] is that we couldn't assure the safety of the witnesses and the court," explained Ralph Zacklin, the assistant secretary-general for the U.N. Office of Legal Affairs. "We hope that it will work out here, but we can't be sure."
There are also questions about fairness. Some journalists in Freetown have suggested that the court will assist President Kabbah in eliminating his enemies and competitors. Others note that Kabbah helped fund Norman's militia and accuse the president of turning on the man who led the fight to restore the government after a 1997 military coup and the 1999 rebel takeover.
To reassure the public and former fighters from all sides, prosecutors have sent out emissaries like Mohamed Lamin Suma of the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Sierra Leone. At ease in front of a crowd of 40 in the village of Firestone, near Freetown, Suma made a promise that brought nodding heads: "The court will take those who thought they were God and, in the dock, they will be humble."
But if Sierra Leoneans want the Kakatua neutralized, they also know that pursuing former commanders means giving them a powerful incentive to take up arms again. During the war it was common for fighters to switch sides, and in the run-up to Norman's indictment it wasn't hard to imagine the Kamajors turning on the government they recently fought so viciously to defend. While the U.N. took weapons from many of Norman's 20,000 fighters when it tried to disarm the country in 2001, no one knows how many guns remain.
On the day of Norman's arrest, more than 13,000 U.N. peacekeepers were placed on alert around the country. Prosecutors also sought to take custody of the infamous rebel leader Foday Sankoh, who was already in government hands. And they hoped to catch four of Sankoh's commanders, as well as Johnny Paul Koroma, the leader of the 1997 coup. Koroma and Sam Bockarie, Sankoh's most notorious henchman, fled the country before they could be arrested. But the other suspects were taken into the Special Court's custody. Through his lawyers, Norman told the Kamajors not to respond militarily. They apparently obeyed. A wave of relief spread and respect for the court increased.
That promising beginning emboldened the Special Court to go after the biggest fish of all: Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, who terrified Liberians into electing him president in 1997 after his troops had overrun much of the country. Taylor has long been blamed for using the war in Sierra Leone to enrich his regime. RUF rebels often found safe haven in Liberia, going there to exchange raw diamonds for weapons, food, and training. After they fled last spring, Koroma and Bockarie were rumored to be in Liberia under Taylor's protection.
Under pressure from the Special Court to hand over the fugitives, the Liberian government delivered Bockarie's corpse to Freetown. Forensic evidence showed he had been killed by a firing squad. Prosecutors also said that Bockarie's mother, wife, and two daughters had been murdered outside their home in Liberia, and reports emerged that Koroma, too, had been killed there. It seemed that Taylor might be purging those who could tie him to war crimes in Sierra Leone.
Though Taylor likely didn't know it, the Special Court had already indicted him, in a document that for months was under seal. He is charged with 17 counts, including terrorizing civilians, unlawful killings, sexual violence, looting and burning, use of child soldiers, abductions, and forced labor. When Crane learned that Taylor had traveled to Ghana in early June for peace talks with the rebels who controlled 60 percent of Liberia, the prosecutor announced the charges against him and called on Ghana and Interpol to arrest the Liberian president.
Taylor is the first sitting head of state ever to be indicted for war crimesa major step for the rule of international law. But Ghana balked at enforcing the tribunal's warrant. In Liberia, rumors of Taylor's arrest led to panic. Shops and banks closed in the capital of Monrovia; soldiers filled the streets. Taylor promptly returned to Liberia and the command of his army. But invigorated by the efforts to arrest him, Liberian rebels reached Monrovia in June. With hundreds killed in the ongoing fighting, international pressure on Taylor mounted, especially from the U.S.
The prosecutors had taken a huge gamble, risking the credibility of the court and threatening efforts to bring peace to West Africa. Crane was assailed by some American commentators for undermining the region's stability by making his move against Taylor at the wrong time. In response, Crane argues that the decision was a legal one based on the evidence, taken without consultation of any state. It isn't his job to reflect on the best time for justice, he said.