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Last Updated:  Saturday, 15 March, 2003, 23:05 GMT
Sierra Leone accused in court
Foday Sankoh
The defence wants Sankoh examined (Court photo)
Sierra Leone's once feared rebel leader, Foday Sankoh, was brought before a United Nations-backed court on Saturday to face war crimes charges.

Mr Sankoh, who led the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), was the first of four accused to appear before the tribunal over their role in the brutal 10-year civil war that claimed thousands of lives.

The BBC's Tom McKinley says the former rebel leader, slouched in a wheelchair with his grey dreadlocks falling over his face, looked a pitiful sight.

The judge ruled that he should undergo physiological and psychiatric tests to determine whether he is fit to stand trial and adjourned the hearing until 20 March.

Foday Sankoh
Sankoh in May 2000
Proceedings at the courthouse in the south-eastern town of Bonthe opened amid tight security.

Mr Sankoh made no reply as Judge Benjamin Itoe from Cameroon asked him several times to confirm his identity.

"The court is taken aback and wonders whether he is hearing the court at all," Judge Itoe said.

Atrocities

Mr Sankoh and three other senior rebel figures are accused of crimes including murder, rape, acts of terror, sexual slavery and extermination.

The UN set up the Sierra Leone tribunal to prosecute those considered to have the greatest responsibility for war crimes committed during the conflict.

Issa Sesay
Issa Sesay one of Sankoh's top deputies stood handcuffed in court
RUF rebels were blamed in particular for atrocities such as amputating the limbs of civilians, including young children.

Foday Sankoh is also being tried under Sierra Leone law on other charges, including murder.

The former rebel leader faces the death penalty under national law if found guilty, but the special UN court does not have the power to impose capital punishment.

RUF commander Issa Sesay, handcuffed and dressed in a white prison uniform, then appeared before the tribunal.

The list of 17 charges against him, which included unlawful killing, and physical and sexual violence, took more than an hour to read out.

He pleaded not guilty on all counts.

Our correspondent says the indictments seemed to indicate that President Charles Taylor of Liberia played a significant role in Sierra Leone's civil war.

The court registrar said that Mr Sesay and his colleagues had acted in concert with Mr Taylor - a statement which adds weight to speculation that the Liberian leader may, at some stage, also be called to face the court.

Security risk

The hearings of the two other rebels, Morris Kallon and Alex Brima, were adjourned until Monday.

However, Sierra Leone's Internal Affairs Minister, Sam Hinga Norman, who has also been indicted, was not summoned to appear in court.

Mr Hinga Norman was a leader of the Kamajor militia, which supported the government during the civil war.

He is still seen by many in Sierra Leone as a hero who stood up to the rebels.

Our correspondent says the court seems to view his hearing as a potential security risk, raising the question of where and when he will be charged.

Both the Kamajors and the rebels were accused of widespread brutality, including rape, arson and plunder of civilian property.

A rebel commander, Sam Bockarie, and former military leader , Johnny Paul Koroma, are still at large. There have been calls for West African countries harbouring them to hand them over to face trial.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Tom McKinley
"The former rebel leader was a pitiful sight"



SEE ALSO:
Notorious rebel leaves Liberia
08 Feb 01 |  Africa


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