(Nairobi) – The Sierra Leone authorities should open a criminal investigation of a suspected arms supplier for his alleged involvement in international crimes during Sierra Leone’s civil war. This would be Sierra Leone’s first purely domestic prosecution in relation to war crimes or crimes against humanity committed during its 11-year armed conflict, which ended in 2002.
Ibrahim Bah, also known as Ibrahim Balde, is a Senegalese national who allegedly provided arms and materiel to the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF), according to a United Nations panel of experts and the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone. The RUF committed widespread and systematic abuses against civilians characterized by murder, mutilation, amputation, torture, rape, and forced abductions during the war.
“Ibrahim Bah was allegedly involved in arming and supporting Sierra Leone’s rebels, who committed massive atrocities during the country’s 11-year civil conflict,” said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Now that Bah has been located in Freetown, Sierra Leone authorities should promptly open a criminal investigation.”
Bah has been subject to a UN-imposed travel ban since 2004 for his alleged role in illegal arms and diamond dealing and for supporting former Liberian President Charles Taylor’s effort to destabilize Sierra Leone. He was believed to be living in Burkina Faso, but a new report issued by a UN panel of experts on May 31, 2013, found that Bah has been living in Sierra Leone since 2008.
The UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone found that Bah was a close associate of Taylor, who was convicted by the court in 2012 for his role in providing arms and other assistance to the rebels. Taylor’s conviction is on appeal. From 2002 to 2009, the Special Court tried and convicted three former leaders of the RUF rebels, three former leaders of the rebel Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, and two former members of a pro-government civil defense militia, in addition to Taylor.
The Sierra Leone government and the UN established the hybrid international-national court, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, in 2002 to prosecute those “bearing the greatest responsibility” for crimes committed during the conflict. However, the tribunal is winding down operations. One of the hoped-for legacies of the Special Court is that it has helped build capacity in Sierra Leone to prosecute international crimes domestically, including those committed during Sierra Leone’s armed conflict. Numerous Sierra Leoneans have worked as investigators, prosecutors, and defense counsel at the court.
“The Special Court has made a vital contribution, but its work should not be the end of the road,” Dufka said. “Domestic cases are also needed to more fully ensure justice for the gravest crimes committed during Sierra Leone’s war.”
Sierra Leone’s domestic criminal code lacks some definitions of serious crimes in violation of international law, and laws incorporating these crimes should be adopted. However, ordinary crimes such as rape and murder that underlie such crimes are available under the domestic code.
“Sierra Leone has taken major steps over the past decade to promote justice for serious crimes committed during its horrific civil war and to build respect for the rule of law,” Dufka said. “Investigating Bah for possible criminal prosecution would be an important way to build on this progress.”