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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 June, 2004, 09:43 GMT 10:43 UK
Sierra Leone war 'hero' on trial
Sierra Leone's ex Interior Minister Sam Hinga Norman
Many in Sierra Leone see Sam Hinga Norman as a hero
The first trials of suspects accused of committing atrocities during Sierra Leone's civil war are resuming.

Popular pro-government militia leader Sam Hinga Norman along with Moinina Fofana and Allieu Kondewa are facing the UN-backed war crimes tribunal.

Among the charges are the forcible conscription of child soldiers - the first time the crime has been prosecuted under international law.

About 50,000 people were killed, and many more maimed and raped in the war.

The hearings were adjourned last week after Sam Hinga Norman sacked his defence counsel, saying he wanted to defend himself, but the court ruled earlier this week that he could not.

Mr Norman is regarded by some in Sierra Leone as a hero for standing up to the rebels who were trying to oust an elected government and his supporters are angry that he is being placed in the same bracket as the rebels.

Court officials estimate up to 500,000 people are direct victims of the violence meted out in the 1991-2002 conflict.

Guards outside war crimes court in Freetown, Sierra Leone

The conflict was marked by the frequent hacking off of limbs, ears and lips of civilians, including children.

The three suspects, who face eight counts of committing war crimes, all belonged to the Civil Defence Forces (CDF), or Kamajors, a group that fought alongside the Sierra Leone army against rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Mr Hinga Norman was deputy defence minister.

Prosecution lawyers told the court last week that the defendants were personally liable for crimes carried out under their orders "as if they committed each and every crime themselves".

Next month, former rebels will appear in court.

Thirteen indictments have been issued so far, among them the former Liberian President, Charles Taylor, accused of backing the RUF in exchange for diamonds.

The trials follow more than two years of investigation into crimes carried out during the bloody decade-long conflict and are seen as a test of whether the court, a combination of international and domestic law, can provide justice.

The special court is the first of its kind to sit UN-appointed judges alongside local judges, in the country where the crimes were committed.

The BBC's Alastair Leithead reports from Freetown
"The people of Sierra Leone are impatient - they want justice"

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