Friday, March 09, 2007

Ex Sierra Leone militia leader to get hero's burial

FREETOWN, March 8 (Reuters) - Hundreds of mourners on Thursday flocked to see the body of former Sierra Leonean militia leader Sam Hinga Norman, whose fighters were accused of roasting and eating their victims during a civil war.

A former interior minister and co-ordinator of the Civil Defence Forces (CDF) militia during the British colony's 1991-2002 conflict, Norman died from heart failure two weeks ago after a routine operation in nearby Senegal.

He had been on trial for war crimes at a U.N.-backed tribunal in Sierra Leone's capital Freetown, with a verdict due in the coming weeks. But he is seen by many in the country as a hero who helped save them from the hands of brutal rebel forces.

"It was Norman who saw me and said to me they need me in the fight for democracy and I should give my assistance," said Mamay Hawa Massaquoi, a former militia fighter attending a public viewing of the body in Freetown's Victoria Park.

"Norman is dead but his soul has not died. He was a believer," he said, fighting back tears.

The CDF fought to defend President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah's government against the Revolutionary United Front rebels, who chopped limbs, lips and ears off their victims and carved the letters RUF into the bodies of children they kidnapped to fight.

Pro-government militia fighters used similarly brutal tactics, recruiting underage fighters and hacking to death and burning civilians suspected of supporting the rebels.

But Norman's sympathisers say his role as co-ordinator of the CDF must be seen in context: a minister asked by his government to protect people from rebels who forced children to murder their parents and mutilated with impunity.

"Sam Hinga Norman is regarded as one of the heroes of the war and played a key role in helping the peace," Peter Penfold, former British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone, told Reuters.

"It's tragic that this person who has done so much for his country and his people spent his final four years in prison."


Norman, who was leader of the feared Kamajor hunters that formed the backbone of the CDF, was charged with eight counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone.

The indictment against him and two co-defendants stated Kamajor fighters killed scores of civilians suspected of sympathising with the RUF. It said Norman knew and approved of the recruitment of children aged under 15 into the Kamajor.

The prosecution told the U.N.-backed court that drug-addled Kamajor fighters had paraded severed heads and eaten the roasted flesh and intestines of their victims.

Norman maintained his innocence throughout the trial, which began in June 2004.

President Kabbah, who ends his tenure in July when polls are due to choose his successor, has said Norman will receive a hero's burial.

"Though he was charged with alleged crimes against humanity, the court did not find him guilty of the allegations since he died with no verdict given," Kabbah told state radio last week.

"Because of this, my government is of the view that Norman should be given a state funeral," he said.

Norman's body will be taken to his home village of Ngolala, in the southern region of Bo, for a Christian burial on Sunday. (Additional reporting by James Knight and Katrina Manson in Freetown)

Link to Reuters AlertNet - Ex Sierra Leone militia leader to get hero's burial