Sierra Leone war crimes court issues its first verdicts

A U.N.-backed court in Sierra Leone issued its first verdicts, convicting three former leaders of a junta.

The court found the three defendants guilty of 11 of 14 charges, including terrorism, using child soldiers, enslavement, rape and murder. There were no judgments entered on charges of sexual slavery and inhumane acts related to sexual violence. The three were acquitted of "other inhumane acts" related to physical violence.

The tribunal was set up following the end of fighting in 2002 to prosecute the worst offenders in a conflict that ravaged the small West African nation and spilled over into neighboring Liberia. The court has indicted 12 people, including former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who is charged with backing Sierra Leonean rebels.

The three defendants convicted Wednesday in Freetown had pleaded not guilty to all the charges, which were linked to heading a junta that raped women, burned villages, conscripted thousands of child soldiers and forced others to work as laborers in diamond mines.

The men Alex Tamba Brima, Brima Bazzy Kamara and Santigie Borbor Kanu were indicted in 2003 as the alleged leaders of the group, called the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council. The group of former military officers toppled Sierra Leone's government in 1997 and then teamed up with rebels to control the country until 1998, according to the indictment.

The conviction marks a watershed, said Corinne Dufka, a senior researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch. "It's the first time that an international court has issued a verdict on child recruitment," she said.

Dufka said the group committed their worst atrocities after they were pushed into the bush by an international peacekeeping force in 1998.

It was then that they started "punishing the civilian population as a whole," said Dufka, an expert on the conflict.

It is estimated that about half a million people were victims of killings, systematic mutilation and other atrocities during Sierra Leone's conflict, in which illicit diamond sales fueled years of devastation.

Final arguments in the case against the three men ended in December 2006.

Five others are awaiting verdicts in Freetown.

Some have criticized the Special Court for not progressing through trials quickly enough. Three of those charged have died since the indictments two of natural causes and one in a killing that many believe was a move to silence him.

Taylor's trial opened earlier this month in The Hague, Netherlands. It was being held outside of Freetown because of fears the case could trigger fresh violence, but remained under the auspices of the Sierra Leone court. Taylor's case was being heard in a room rented from the International Criminal Court.

Taylor is also linked to brutality in his own country, but Liberians have opted for a truth and reconciliation commission rather than a court.