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Sierra Leone: War Crimes Court Makes Major Strides

Taylor’s Surrender, Adequate Funding Crucial to Court’s Continued Success

(New York) - 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.


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.

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