Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sierra Leone court sentences militia leaders to less than 10 years

A U.N.-backed court sentenced two former leaders of a pro-government militia to six and eight years in jail Tuesday for brutalities committed during Sierra Leone's decade-long civil war.

The ruling was a victory for the defense, given that the prosecution was asking for 30-year jail terms. It also reflects the ambiguity with which Sierra Leone has viewed atrocities committed by a group that many still see as heroes who fought rebels who may have done much worse.

Moinina Fofana (photo) and Allieu Kondewa were among the leaders of a group called the Civil Defense Forces, which used a network of tribal-based hunters known as the Kamajors to fight various rebel groups during the country's 1991-2002 war.

The Civil Defense Forces have been widely accused of torturing and mutilating civilians in pursuit of its goals.

Fofana and Kondewa were both convicted on four counts involving murder, cruel treatment, pillage and issuing collective punishment. Kondewa was convicted on an additional count of conscripting child soldiers.Kondewa was sentenced to eight years; Fofana to six years.

The charges against the Civil Defense Forces have fueled controversy in the West African country, where many argue the tribal-based force should be praised as patriots. Some relatives of the defendants could be heard sobbing in the crowded public gallery as sentences were read out, while other onlookers argued they were too light.

The sole Sierra Leonean judge on the three-judge trial panel had ruled that they were not guilty on all counts. The Aug. 2 conviction held 2-1 with guilty verdicts from judges from Cameroon and Canada.

Presiding Judge Benjamin Itoe said the sentences were short partly because the Civil Defense Forces "contributed immensely to re-establishing the rule of law in this country where criminality, anarchy and lawlessness ... had become the order of the day."

Still, he added that the brutality of their methods could not go unpunished.

"Both Fofana and Kondewa failed to prevent the brutal killings of their kith and kin by their subordinates," said Judge Benjamin Itoe, the presiding judge. He said civilians "unjustifiably perceived as rebel collaborators" were harshly and violently punished.

The jail terms are to be counted from the date the defendants were taken into custody by the court in May 2003, meaning Fofana could be free in two years.

Fofana and Kondewa issued public statements expressing their regret for their organization's role in the bloody war.

"Sierra Leoneans, those of you who suffered during the conflict, I plead for mercy and I express remorse," Kondewa said in his native Mende language.

Sierra Leone's Special Court was set up after the end of the war to hold accountable those most responsible for atrocities committed during years of vicious fighting. During the war, various groups burned villages, chopped off people's hands with machetes and went on campaigns of rape.

Those first convicted were members of a ruling junta who were sentenced to 45- to 50-year prison terms.

Over the course of the trial of the Civil Defense Forces militia, which began in June 2004, 75 prosecution witnesses testified to support charges of murder, systematic looting and burning of villages, as well as the recruitment of child soldiers.

The head of the Civil Defense Forces, Sam Hinga Norman, had also been indicted, but died earlier this year.

It is estimated that about half a million people were victims of killings, systematic mutilation and other atrocities during years of fighting in Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leone court sentences militia leaders to less than 10 years - International Herald Tribune