(New York) - The Sierra Leone Special Court's announcement of its first seven indictments is a tremendous step forward for the cause of justice in Sierra Leone, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Sierra Leone Special Court Prosecutor, David Crane, yesterday announced indictments against Foday Saybana Sankoh, Johnny Paul Koroma, Sam Bockarie, Issa Hassan Sesay, Alex Tamba Brima, Morris Kallon and Sam Hinga Norman, for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and violations of international humanitarian law. Sankoh, Sesay, Brima, Kallon, and Norman are in custody.

"This is a key step towards accountability for the horrific crimes of the civil war in Sierra Leone," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "We applaud the court for having the courage to indict persons who were on all sides of the conflict."

The crimes alleged in the indictments include murder, rape, extermination, acts of terror, enslavement, looting and burning, sexual slavery, conscription of children into an armed force, and attacks on UNAMSIL peacekeepers and humanitarian assistance workers.

The civil war in Sierra Leone was marked by serious atrocities committed principally by the members of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF)/Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) rebel alliance. Civilians bore the brunt of these abuses in widespread and systematic attacks characterized by murder, mutilation, amputation, torture, rape and forced abductions. Civilian Defense Forces (CDF) militias fighting on behalf of the government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah also committed numerous human rights violations, albeit on a smaller scale and of a different nature than those committed by the rebel alliance.

Foday Sankoh was leader of the RUF. Johnny Paul Koroma was head of the AFRC. Sam Bockarie was a particularly notorious RUF commander, and Sam Hinga Norman led the Kamajors, the largest and most powerful group of the CDF. Norman is currently Sierra Leone Minister of Internal Affairs.

The Special Court is a "mixed" tribunal that has both international and domestic elements, including international and Sierra Leonean judges and staff. The court is designed to function for three years and has power to prosecute those "who bear the greatest responsibility" for serious violations of international humanitarian law and certain violations of Sierra Leone law committed in Sierra Leone since November 30, 1996.

While Human Rights Watch welcomed the indictments, Takirambudde said that "they are only one step on the long road to a full accounting of crimes committed in Sierra Leone."

Because the Special Court is anticipated to prosecute around twenty persons, it will leave many crimes unaddressed. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission is also at work in Sierra Leone. Its mandate is to seek to establish an impartial historical record of the conflict and promote reconciliation, but it will not have the capacity to adjudicate criminal responsibility.