- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 31, 2007

On June 4, the trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor will begin in The Hague. Mr. Taylor faces 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious violations of international humanitarian law for his role in the decade-long civil war that engulfed Sierra Leone. This trial at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, along with those of nine others from the three main factions involved in the war, is part of the international community’s efforts to bring to justice those who bear the greatest responsibility for the atrocities committed.

While many see the Special Court and the trial of Charles Taylor as a triumph for international justice, what, if anything, does this mean for justice in Sierra Leone? The president of Sierra Leone, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, has stated on numerous occasions that justice is a prerequisite to ensuring peace in Sierra Leone. He requested the creation of the Special Court on this basis. But surely this cannot be limited to justice as meted out by the Special Court. Ensuring peace must mean creating a fair, humane and accessible justice system for all Sierra Leoneans, not just the 10 individuals tried before the Special Court. As the Taylor trial begins and Mr. Kabbah’s term in office comes to an end, it is worth looking at what his government has done to ensure justice in Sierra Leone. Beyond the trial of Mr. Taylor, is Sierra Leone well on its way toward a peaceful future or a few steps away from a new conflict?

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), created in 2002, found that one of the root causes of the war was an absolute failure of governance, and that the government was largely irrelevant to the Sierra Leonean people. Disturbingly, the TRC detected no sense of urgency among government officials to address the immense challenges facing the country, including those within the justice sector. This is a deeply troubling revelation and a damning indictment against a government that has consistently espoused the need for justice to ensure lasting peace in Sierra Leone.

When the Special Court began operating in Freetown in 2003, half a kilometer away in the Pademba Road maximum security prison, hundreds of ex-combatants waited for their trials to begin in connection with war-related incidents. Their detention and subsequent trials in 2005 were characterized by gross judicial abuses, detention without charges, a lack of defense counsel, the taking of statements under severe duress and physical abuse that resulted in a number of deaths. These lower ranking former rebels, some former child soldiers, faced the death penalty as an outcome of a trial with few, if any, judicial guarantees. Meanwhile, those considered “most responsible” were being tried at the Special Court, an international court where millions of dollars have been invested for prosecution, defense and the proper functioning of trials with no possibility of a death sentence. The disparities were alarming in 2003 and remain the same today.

The international community has invested millions of dollars toward improving the justice sector. But without the leadership and commitment of the Kabbah government, change is exceedingly slow. Appeals cannot be heard because there is no paper to type out the trial record. It can take months, even years to locate a case file as there is no discernible system of record keeping. Court and prison officials appear to be motivated by bribes and little else. In Pademba Road prison, it is not uncommon to find people serving four- to five-year prison terms because they cannot pay the alternative $150 fine. This is not justice. This is criminalizing poverty.

Perhaps one of the most striking examples of the empty legacy of Mr. Kabbah within the justice sector is that in Sierra Leone one can get the death penalty simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Take the case of nine former members of the Sierra Leone army. In December 2004, the High Court convicted them of treason and sentenced them to death. A number of those convicted were guilty only of being present at the barracks where the alleged treason attempt was made. The death sentence was imposed two months after the TRC report recommended immediate abolition of the death penalty. The government ignored these recommendations, though Mr. Kabbah has apparently given reassurances that the death penalty will not be used. That is little comfort for these men, living their lives in cells just steps away from the door that will lead them to their death, waiting for an appeal that the court seems to have no interest in hearing.

This week the prosecutor will open his case against Mr. Taylor, a massive step forward toward justice in Sierra Leone. In August, Mr. Kabbah’s term in office finishes. Some might say that his presidency has left behind many lasting legacies. But ensuring justice for all Sierra Leoneans will certainly not be one of them. And sadly, this does not bode well for the future of Sierra Leone.

Clare da Silva is a Canadian lawyer working in the field of international law.

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