Page last updated at 10:18 GMT, Wednesday, 8 April 2009 11:18 UK

Q&A: S Leone's war crimes tribunal

The BBC News website looks at the role of Sierra Leone's United Nations-backed war crimes court, set up in 2002.

Some 50,000 people were killed and thousands more had their bodies mutilated, with government militias and the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) alike accused of extreme brutality against civilians during the decade-long civil war.

Who has been charged by the Special Court for Sierra Leone?

A young Sierra Leonean girl shows her artifical limbs
Sierra Leone rebels were notorious for brutality

When the war officially ended in 2002, it was decided to try those people who bore the greatest responsibility for the atrocities, as trying all those who had committed crimes would have been an impossible task.

Thirteen people were originally indicted by the court.

But RUF rebel leader Foday Sankoh and his deputy commander Sam Bockarie have since died.

Earlier in 2007, ex-Defence Minister Sam Hinga Norman, who led the pro-government Civil Defence Force (CDF) which fought the RUF, died in custody while awaiting a verdict.

The former leader of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) Johnny Paul Koroma - who seized power from the elected leader Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in 1997 and later formed an alliance with the RUF - is missing.

The nine other defendants, except for Liberia's former President Charles Taylor who is accused of arming the RUF, have stood or are standing trial in groups:

  • RUF group: Issa Hassan Sesay, Morris Kallon, Augustine Gbao: found guilty in February 2009 of war crimes and crimes against humanity
  • AFRC group: Alex Tamba Brima, Brima Kamara, Santigie Borbor Kanu: found guilty in June 2007 of war crimes
  • CDF group: Moinina Fofana, Allieu Kondewa: found guilty in August 2007 of war crimes
  • Charles Taylor: trial under way.

How is it different from other war crime tribunals?

Unlike the tribunals in the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda, the special court was set up with the agreement of Sierra Leone and operates under both Sierra Leone domestic law and international humanitarian law.

It is based in the capital, Freetown, with both international and Sierra Leonean judges, prosecutors and staff, although Mr Taylor's case is being heard at The Hague.

How long is the court expected to last?

In May 2007, the court asked the European Union to provide more funding saying it only had enough resources to last until the end of October.

Previously, it has been funded mainly by the US, the UK, the Netherlands and Canada.

It said it would need about $90m for Mr Taylor's trial, which began in January last year after a six-month adjournment because Mr Taylor dismissed his lawyer after only one day.

Why was Mr Taylor's case transferred to the Netherlands?

It was moved to The Hague for fear of fresh instability in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Charles Taylor
Liberia's former leader is on trial in the Netherlands

Human rights activists have accused Mr Taylor of being at the centre of a West Africa-wide web of armed groups.

But the trial is being held by the Sierra Leone court - not the International Criminal Court.

He faces 11 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the war.

The key point in the trial is whether it can be proved that Mr Taylor personally had links to the acts.

If he is found guilty, he would serve his term in the UK.

Has the court proved controversial?

Yes, with Koroma missing and Sankoh and Bockarie dead, there have been concerns that the court may have missed out on the ring leaders of the brutal conflict.

But the dramatic arrest of Mr Taylor last year was welcomed by many in Sierra Leone.

A former prosecutor for the court, David Crane, has also accused Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi of being behind the past decade of war in West Africa. He has not been indicted by the court.

There was also much controversy over the indictment of Mr Hinga Norman, who before his death was described by some as a hero for standing up to the rebels.

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