(New York) - The decision by Sierra Leone’s war crimes court to reject sentence reductions for two convicted militia members because they fought for a “legitimate cause” is crucial in ensuring justice for all victims of human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said today.

The appeals chamber of the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone handed down its judgment on May 28 in the sentencing of Moinina Fofana and Allieu Kondewa. They were leaders of the government-supported Civil Defence Forces during Sierra Leone’s brutal armed conflict that ended in 2002.

Both men were convicted of war crimes involving extreme acts of violence such as mutilations against civilians. The trial chamber of the court had reduced their sentences on the grounds that they had engaged in the conflict to secure democracy. The appeals chamber rejected that portion of the ruling. Consistent with this and other findings, the appeals chamber increased Fofana’s sentence from six to 15 years and Kondewa’s sentence from eight to 20 years.

“This decision rightly affirms that there is no excuse for attacking and mutilating civilians regardless of the purpose in fighting,” said Elise Keppler, international justice senior counsel at Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch has analyzed why motives behind waging war are not an acceptable basis to mitigate sentences in a memorandum.

The Special Court trial chamber found the defendants guilty of very serious violations of international humanitarian law following testimony from more than 100 witnesses who described barbaric crimes that included mutilations, targeting, and deliberate killing of unarmed men, women, and children, and the murder of women who had sticks inserted and forced into their genitals.

“The ruling reinforces the principle that all parties in a conflict must abide by the same rules and be subject to the same punishment,” said Keppler. “To do less would provide victims unequal protection under the law depending on who their attackers are.”

It is unprecedented at international courts for the political motivation of a perpetrator in taking up arms to be accepted as a mitigating factor in reducing sentences, Human Rights Watch said. The international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda previously have rejected similar claims.

“The Special Court has been an important force in bringing justice for horrific crimes committed in Sierra Leone,” said Keppler. “This decision is a further step in that direction and strengthens similar decisions by other international criminal courts.”


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.

Sierra Leone’s Special Court has thus far tried eight individuals associated with the three warring factions during the conflict – Revolutionary United Front, Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), and Civil Defence Forces – in Freetown. Liberia’s former president Charles Taylor is being tried by the Special Court, for crimes allegedly committed in Sierra Leone, at the facilities of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Taylor’s trial was relocated from Liberia due to security concerns in the region.

The only other trial in which a judgment has been handed down is in the AFRC trial. In a judgment affirmed on appeal, the three defendants were convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 45 and 50 years.