Thursday, November 03, 2005

Sierra Leone: War Crimes Court Makes Major Strides

(New York, November 2, 2005) ? The U.N.-backed court for war
crimes in Sierra Leone is making major strides toward ensuring justice
for serious crimes committed during the eleven-year war in Sierra
Leone, Human Rights Watch said in a report issued today.

The devastating conflict, which lasted from 1991 until 2002, was
characterized by brutal human rights abuses committed by all warring
factions.

The 46-page report, "Justice in Motion: The Trial Phase of the Special
Court for Sierra Leone," evaluates the conduct of the court during
trials, which began last June.

"The Special Court has broken new ground with practices to promote
fair trials, protect witnesses and make justice accessible to Sierra
Leoneans," said Elise Keppler, counsel with Human Rights Watch's
International Justice Program. "The Special Court is setting
benchmarks that other tribunals can look to."

Key accomplishments of this novel tribunal, which is a hybrid
international-national court, include:
? Substantial progress on trials of accused associated with all three
main warring factions
? A defense office that advocates to ensure effective defense
representation and fair trials
? A comprehensive scheme of protection and support for scores of
witnesses
? Robust outreach that disseminates information about the court around
the country through video, radio and discussion

Initially forced to rely exclusively on voluntary donations from other
countries, the Special Court has faced constant financial shortfalls.
Recent pledges made at a funding conference on September 30 are
commendable, but remain inadequate. As a result, the court currently
lacks sufficient funds to complete operations and carry out critical
"post-completion" activities, such as protecting witnesses who have
testified.

"With everything the Special Court has achieved, it would be shameful
if it didn't receive the funding it needs to wrap up its work," said
Keppler. "Donor countries should step up and contribute generously so
that the court can make a strong and historic finish."

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor's ongoing exile in Nigeria
also threatens to undercut the Special Court's ability to fulfill its
mandate to prosecute those bearing the greatest responsibility for
serious crimes committed in Sierra Leone's armed conflict, Human
Rights Watch said. Taylor has been indicted by the Special Court of
seventeen counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity against
the people of Sierra Leone. The crimes include killings, mutilations,
rape and other forms of sexual violence, sexual slavery, the
recruitment and use of child soldiers, abduction, and the use of forced
labor by Sierra Leonean armed opposition groups.

"The Special Court cannot complete its work as long as Nigeria
continues to harbor Taylor," said Keppler.

The report details concerns regarding court operations that should be
addressed to ensure that the court functions as fairly and effectively as
possible. These include disclosure of information identifying protected
witnesses in the courtroom, poor performance of defense counsel, and
insufficient initiatives to engage the national justice system.

Human Rights Watch also identified accomplishments and made
recommendations for improvement in the Special Court's operations.
The report builds upon Human Rights Watch's September 2004 report
"Bringing Justice: The Special Court for Sierra Leone," which
assessed developments at the Special Court at an earlier stage of its
operation.

Background

The Special Court is charged with bringing to justice those who bear
the greatest responsibility for grave crimes committed since November
1996, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, other serious
violations of international humanitarian law and certain violations of
Sierra Leonean law. Created in 2002 through an agreement between
the United Nations and the Sierra Leonean government, the Special
Court represents a significant new model of international justice, often
referred to as a "mixed" or "hybrid" tribunal.

To view this document on the Human Rights Watch web site, please
visit: http://hrw.org/english/docs/2005/11/02/sierra11944.htm