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Thursday, 3 January, 2002, 23:40 GMT
War crimes court for Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone amputee
Thousands of Sierra Leoneans bear the scars of war
Mark Doyle

The United Nations has begun the first practical steps for setting up a special war-crimes court for Sierra Leone, which for a decade suffered one of the most brutal wars in Africa.

The idea of the court was first mooted several years ago, but lack of international interest in financing the court has delayed its actual setting-up.


The late formation of a war-crimes court reflects the world's slow reaction to events in Sierra Leone

Now UN Secretary General Kofi Annan says a team of experts will fly to Sierra Leone in the next few days to look at practical matters like premises and staff.

The prosecution of jailed rebel leader Foday Sankoh, accused of masterminding widespread atrocities against civilians, seems bound to be the main work of the court.

But there seems certain to be many more cases.

Mutilations

Tens of thousands of people had their limbs deliberately hacked off, mainly by the rebels; many more women were raped; and several million civilians fled their homes as armed men took hold of the country.

Sierra Leone rebel leader Foday Sankoh
Foday Sankoh is accused of widespread atrocities

Many years after the atrocities were well-documented, the former colonial power, Britain, did give some much-needed backbone to a UN peacekeeping force and, as a result, stability is now returning to the country.

But now the war-crimes court is somewhat late in being formed as well.

Superfluous

The British-backed government has already released from jail many of the rebel leaders who could have been tried as part of a strategy to bring them inside the peace process.

UK Marines in Sierra Leone in 2000
British troops stepped in to prop up the faltering peacekeeping effort

It is a strategy that has worked - but it makes the UN move to form a special court now look rather late and, to some, even superfluous.

Nevertheless, the main rebel leader, Foday Sankoh, is still in detention and his prosecution seems bound to be the main work of the special court.

See also:

29 Sep 00 | Africa
Row over 'war crimes' youngsters
22 Jun 00 | Africa
UN seeks Sierra Leone rebel trial
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