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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 March, 2004, 11:13 GMT
W Africa war crimes court opens
Sierra Leone amputee
The war was marked by the deliberate maiming of civilians
The UN-backed war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone has opened its new courthouse to try people involved in one of Africa's bloodiest civil wars.

The decade-long conflict in Sierra Leone was characterised by deliberate attacks on civilians, including murder, rape, torture and mutilation.

The court aims to prosecute top militia leaders from both sides in the war.

But it does not hold the main backer of the rebels, the former president of neighbouring Liberia, Charles Taylor.

Terrorise

The new court follows the establishment of war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

We want Africans to turn this African over to this African international war crimes tribunal, so he can be fairly tried before the bar
Prosecutor David Crane

But by creating a hybrid between a UN and a Sierra Leone court, the aim is to avoid the delays which have beset these international tribunals.

The opening ceremony took place amid tight security. Soldiers from the UN peace keeping force that helped end the war three years ago patrolled the court compound, while armed Sierra Leonean police kept watch from rooftops around the perimeter.

The BBC's Mark Doyle in Freetown says the opening of the courthouse itself marks an important step, as Sierra Leone tries to move on from a devastating war.

The conflict left some 50,000 dead; hacking off of people's hands and feet to terrorise the population was common.

The court has nine senior militia leaders in detention from the government and rebel sides.

Charles Taylor
Nigeria is under pressure to hand over Charles Taylor
But Charles Taylor - who the prosecution allege was responsible for crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone - has been given safe haven in Nigeria.

The Nigerian government said the move was designed to end the related war in Liberia.

The chief prosecutor of the Sierra Leone court, David Crane of the US, called on Nigeria to hand Mr Taylor over.

"We want Africans to turn this African over to this African international war crimes tribunal, so he can be fairly tried before the bar, so Africans see that no one is above the law, to include heads of state," he said.

Legitimate fight

The court has already provoked other controversies.

The indictments of the leader of the pro-government militia, Sam Hinga Norman, whose trial should begin, with others, in a few weeks' time, has caused most concern.

I'm afraid you can fight on the side of the angels and nevertheless commit crimes against humanity
Desmond da Silva
Deputy prosecutor
Mr Norman says he was fighting for democracy and indeed at the time his militiamen cooperated with the United Nations and British forces, which were on the same side against the rebels.

His view is backed the former British human rights commissioner to Sierra Leone, Peter Penfold.

"Surely there has to be a difference between a group of thugs and killers who go around butchering people mindlessly, for no particular reason, and people trying to defend their lives, their homes, their children, and seek the restoration of their legitimate government and protect their valued democracy," Mr Penfold told the BBC.

But the prosecution alleges that Mr Norman is responsible for war crimes and that, in these circumstances, the side he was fighting on is irrelevant.

"I'm afraid you can fight on the side of the angels and nevertheless commit crimes against humanity," said deputy prosecutor Desmond da Silva.

There is also a legal wrangle over the position of the court's chief justice, British lawyer Geoffrey Robertson.

Defence lawyers have asked for him to be removed because of book he wrote before being appointed that denounced the rebels' for "grotesque crimes against humanity".

The matter is being considered by the appeal judges.

But our correspondent says even if he is removed, it is unlikely to affect the substantive workings of the court as another presiding judge would probably be appointed.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's David Chazan
"A generation have grown up knowing nothing but war"



SEE ALSO:
Sierra Leone judge bias claims
10 Mar 04  |  Africa
Sierra Leone: Memories of war
19 Jan 02  |  Africa
UN court rejects Sankoh plea
23 Jul 03  |  Africa
Bringing justice to Sierra Leone
17 Jan 02  |  Africa


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