Thursday, January 18, 2007

Sierra Leone war crimes defendants flown abroad

The top loyalist and rebel defendants being tried for war crimes in Sierra Leone were both flown abroad for medical treatment on Wednesday just weeks before the verdicts are due, the prosecutor said.

Stephen Rapp, who took over on Jan. 1 as chief prosecutor for the United Nations-backed tribunal trying the men, told reporters that former Defence Minister Sam Hinga Norman and ex-rebel commander Issa Sesay had been flown to Dakar, Senegal.

He said court authorities would not disclose the nature of the men's illnesses. Family members of both men said they had been complaining of pains, and a relative said Issa Sesay still had a bullet lodged in his body from the war.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone was set up with U.N. backing and money from foreign donors to try the main instigators of atrocities in the West African country's 1991-2002 civil war, during which rebels chopped off civilians' limbs. All sides are accused of widespread abuses.

Rapp, a U.S. attorney who supervised prosecutions of Rwandan genocide suspects, said he still hoped the court would give verdicts on both rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and loyalist Civil Defence Forces (CDF) suspects in March and April.

"The absence of both Chief Hinga Norman and Issa Sesay will not hinder the progress of the court," he said.

The indictment against Hinga Norman and two CDF co-defendants said members of the militia practised human sacrifice and cannibalism.

The court's highest-profile indictee, former president of neighbouring Liberia Charles Taylor, has been sent to a special sitting of the court in The Hague to face charges of war crimes linked to his support for the RUF during Sierra Leone's civil war, in which Sierra Leonean diamonds were sold to buy guns.

Taylor's trial was moved from Sierra Leone's capital Freetown after Liberia's new government raised concerns that his continued presence in the region was a threat to stability as Liberia recovered from its own devastating civil war.

The Special Court has suffered a series of setbacks in prosecuting top war crimes suspects.

RUF leader Foday Sankoh died in captivity in 2003, just months after his field commander Sam Bockarie was shot dead in Liberia.

Johnny Paul Koroma, the former leader of a military junta accused of atrocities, vanished several years ago and many Sierra Leoneans believe he is dead, although the court has not withdrawn his indictment.


Link to Reuters AlertNet