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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 June 2004, 19:38 GMT 20:38 UK
S Leone awaits catalogue of horror

Alastair Leithead
BBC, Freetown

Chief prosecutor David Crane
Chief prosecutor David Crane: "Ghosts of thousands of murdered dead stand among us"
Important as the trials are to the future of Sierra Leone, the statements that will be made within this hastily-built courtroom will reveal some of the worst of human nature.

The prosecution spent just a couple of hours summarising what it is going to say and who it is going to call as witnesses, but it is clear that this trial will comprise a catalogue of abuse, persecution, atrocities and terrible human suffering.

The public gallery was packed with dozens of people invited to the Special Court for Sierra Leone to serve witness on behalf of the country's civil society.

It was bad enough hearing the prosecutor describe case after case of murder, beheading, torture, enslavement, looting, burning and terrorising.

It will be a lot worse hearing it from the people themselves - the witnesses who watched their loved ones being killed, the children brutalised into becoming soldiers, the thousands maimed by militiamen.

The chief prosecutor, David Crane, made it clear that this is what the court should expect to hear.

"The ghosts of the thousands of the murdered dead stand among us. They cry out for a fair and transparent trial - to let the world know what took place here, here in Sierra Leone," he said in his opening statement.

"Horrors beyond the imagination will slide into this hallowed hall as this trek upward comes to a most certain and just conclusion. The light of truth, the fresh breeze of justice moves freely about this beaten and broken land."

Fair trial

The first three men to be accused of committing these crimes against humanity sat in the courtroom, taking notes as the list of eight indictments was read out to the court.

Sam Hinga Norman
Notorious: Sam Hinga Norman

The most notorious member of the pro-government militia, the Civil Defence Force, was Sam Hinga Norman.

He smiled at the prosecutors as they pointedly glanced over, linking him to the horrors they read out from the charge sheet.

But Judge Benjamin Itoe made it clear this was to be a fair trial that would remain faithful to the premise of innocent until proven guilty.

"Today is a very memorable day in the history of this country and the people of Sierra Leone as it marks the commencement of trials of some of those who are alleged to bear the greater responsibility for serious breaches of international humanitarian law," he said.

"The mission of this court is to contribute to the peace and reconciliation process within Sierra Leone."


The case against the three CDF men is particularly controversial in Sierra Leone, as much of the populace regards them as heroes for having helped repel the RUF, well known for their brutal treatment of civilians.

The court requested that three men from the rebel Revolutionary United Front be brought in front of the court to set their trial date for next month.

It was a gesture to show that this court will not be taking sides - each group blamed for atrocities will be called to account for their alleged actions.

But in the capital, Freetown, many think the rebels should have faced the court first.

Outside the court building, work is still going on and scaffolding is still in place. It was a real rush to get the building finished in time.

But that says a lot about the urgency of this special court - people need to see things happening and although the men have to have a fair trial, justice must be seen to be done.

It cannot be allowed to drag on like its sister courts on Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. It must be cheap, quick and effective.

Above all, the court has to ensure that an example must be made of those who were responsible for atrocities and crimes against humanity, to stop this from happening again.

The BBC's Alistair Leithead
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