Guilty: Justice in Sierra Leone at Last

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Ben Curtis / AP

Sierre Leone rebel commanders Augustine Gbao, left, and Issa Hassan Sesay at the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone in Freetown on June 3, 2004

Remember Blood Diamond? Remember how all the bad guys died? In reality, most of them not only survived, they went free. As Sierra Leone's civil war wound down in 2002 after 11 years of fighting marked by some of the most brutal human-rights abuses in history, much of that fueled by competition over the country's diamond fields, the leaders of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and other militias, as well as their sponsor, Liberian President Charles Taylor, negotiated themselves an amnesty.

Days before the conflict finished, though, the government of then President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah asked the U.N. to help set up a process to bring the worst offenders to justice. Out of that plea was formed the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a first of its kind: a collaboration between international and national justice and, unlike similar courts set up after wars in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, one established on the soil where the crimes took place. (See pictures of the fallout in Congo by James Nachtwey.)

On Wednesday, the court convicted two surviving RUF leaders, Issa Hassan Sesay and Morris Kallon, of 16 out of 18 counts of war crimes, and a third commander, Augustine Gbao, of 14 counts. The charges included "acts of terrorism" against the civilian population, the use of forced marriage and, for Sesay and Kallon, the use of child soldiers.

Leaders of other militias have already been convicted. The court's last case is the trial of Taylor, who initially fled to Nigeria under his amnesty agreement but is now being held in the Hague. Taylor's trial was moved there for security reasons. After Wednesday's judgment, the prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Stephen Rapp, spoke to TIME's Africa bureau chief Alex Perry by phone from the court's offices in Freetown.

TIME: I imagine you're pleased.
Rapp: Very, very pleased. It's a historic judgment.

What does it mean for Sierra Leone?
This country suffered enormously during this conflict. Some of the most heinous and brutal acts in the history of human warfare were committed here. Tens of thousands were murdered. Tens to hundreds of thousands of women were raped or turned into bush wives and sex slaves. There was this incredibly bestial practice of cutting off limbs, chopping arms and hands. Children were made to commit acts that adults could not commit. It was a campaign of terror. And this was not a war fought as we think of it, but one exclusively targeted at civilians. (See pictures of African diamonds.)

These convictions mean that suffering is recognized. The leaders have been held criminally responsible. It's very important to the victims. Of course, they need more. They need reparations. But I know this is important. They have told me it is extremely important.

What of the age-old debate about justice and peace: that justice can get in the way of peace, but that lasting peace demands justice? At the outset of the court's work, there were many who argued that by ripping up the amnesties granted to the militias, the court would plunge Sierra Leone back into war.
The whole experience of the court indicates how important it is to have justice if you are going to have peace. It has confirmed that. There were those amnesties, granted just days after those leaders had committed some unspeakable atrocities. They did not work. The militias refused to disarm and demobilize. They attacked peacekeepers who were sent to disarm them. It just didn't work. Some may have viewed that as peace — with these militias still armed, still committing any crimes they liked — but it was not.

That's why the President asked us to establish a court. And what happened was kind of a grand experiment. We're different from what happened in Rwanda or Yugoslavia. We are in-country. We are a partnership between the country and the U.N. Except for Taylor, all the trials are being held at the scene of the crime. The judges and the court staff are mixed between international and Sierra Leonean. And we keep people informed of what's going on. Surveys show 90% of the country is aware of what's happening at the court.

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