- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2002

NEW YORK A third U.N. war-crimes tribunal will soon be created, this one to try the rebel leaders who dragged Sierra Leone through a decade of civil war.

The new court, which will follow a composite of Sierra Leone and international law, is intended to be a bare-bones version of the courts for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, according to U.N. legal experts who have just finished hammering out the court's shape with Sierra Leone government officials.

The Freetown court, organized with relative speed by the government and the world body, stands in contrast to the recent collapse of the proposed Cambodian tribunal. The United Nations walked away from that court after more than four years of negotiations, saying Phnom Penh could not guarantee the tribunal's independence and impartiality.

Unlike the vast organizations supporting the other two courts, which have collectively issued more than 160 indictments and handed down fewer than 15 final verdicts, the Sierra Leone tribunal will be small and relatively thrifty.

Once under way, the exercise is expected to take only three years, and cost roughly $60 million including costs for constructing a courthouse, hiring legal and support staff, and upgrading local phone and computer systems.

The Sierra Leone tribunal will hear cases only against the two dozen top leaders of the civil war, those considered responsible for some of the heaviest fighting and stomach-turning violence committed against civilians during the three-year uprising.

Guerrillas of the Revolutionary United Front stirred worldwide revulsion by chopping off hands and feet of noncombatants. Terrorized populations were raped and looted, and thousands of children abducted, drugged and turned into rebel fighters.

The new tribunal is the "first step on the path to combating impunity and addressing accountability for the serious crimes committed in Sierra Leone that have shocked the conscience of mankind," said Hans Corell, U.N. undersecretary-general for legal affairs, at a ceremony in Freetown last month.

A separate Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be set up by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to further encourage accountability and prompt healing.

Although the charges and procedures will be similar to those at the other tribunals, key differences will set the Freetown court apart.

It will closely follow the common law of Sierra Leone, and many of the judges, prosecutors and court staff will be citizens of the country. The chief prosecutor will be a foreigner, however a measure that observers say should bring independence to the office.

Trials should proceed much more quickly in Freetown than in Arusha or The Hague because there will be only one official language English with little anticipated translating. The other tribunals are conducted simultaneously in English and French, as well as the native tongue of the accused.

Also, a number of those likely to be indicted are already in custody in Freetown jails.

But unlike the other two tribunals, which are subsidiary organs of the U.N. Security Council and funded from regular budget assessments of the international organization, the Sierra Leone court's estimated $60 million budget must come from voluntary donations an arrangement that worries both the United Nations and the Sierra Leone government.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has repeatedly warned that it would be tragic to start the court proceedings only to then run out of money. The organization originally wanted $114 million over three years, but trimmed the extras after the United States and other member countries objected.

Sierra Leone diplomats have complained that they are only getting partial justice on a shoestring budget, but U.N. officials and leading donor countries say the economizing won't compromise the most important aspects of the tribunal's work.

So far, the United Nations has met its $16.2 million goal for the first year of the tribunal. Governments have pledged less than half of the $40 million needed for the court's second and third years, but Mr. Corell has expressed confidence the money will be in hand by the time it is needed.

The Freetown tribunal is not the result of a Security Council resolution; it grows out of an agreement between the government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations. Although the council has repeatedly expressed support for the tribunal and urged all nations to cooperate with it and support its work, no government is required to do so.

Allieu Ibrahim Kanu, the deputy ambassador of Sierra Leone to the United Nations, is enthusiastic about the court. He said in a recent interview that the budget should be sufficient to gather evidence and build strong cases against the defendants.

"We have been concerned, but now we are ready," he said.

Although Freetown has publicly expressed fears that potential defendants have escaped through Liberia, he sounded optimistic.

"We know a number of them are already in custody," he said. "But it is not up to the government to chose the defendants, it is up to the prosecutor."

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