‘Brutal’ Sierra Leone rebels face sentencing

Amputee victims of Sierra Leone's civil war take part in football training at a beach in Freetown.
Three former guerrilla leaders — who helped command "one of the most brutal rebel movements in modern days" — will be sentenced Wednesday in Freetown, Sierra Leone, for their crimes against humanity.

The U.N. Special Court for Sierra Leone found the men guilty in February of crimes including murder, rape, sexual slavery and forced marriages stemming from a civil war that lasted from March 1991 to January 2002. The rebels — former leaders in the Revolutionary United Front guerrilla movement — were known for hacking off civilians’ hands and feet during the war, which stood out for its viciousness even on a a continent that has suffered many vicious conflicts. Former Revolutionary United Front “interim leader” Issa Hassan Sesay, former commander Morris Kallon and former chief of security Augustine Gbao were charged with extermination, murder, rape, sexual slavery, forced marriages and physical violence as well as enslaving civilians, mutilating people and pillaging. Sesay and Kallon were found guilty on 16 counts and Gbao was found guilty on 14. Human Rights Watch senior Africa researcher Corinne Dufka at the time called the verdict “very significant.” “The RUF were renowned for leading one of the most brutal rebel movements in modern days. Everyone knows about the signature atrocity of limb amputation, but there was also horrific sexual violence, abductions, use of child soldiers and forced marriages,” she told CNN by phone from Senegal in West Africa. Eight people have now been convicted of war crimes connected with the conflict — some on the rebels’ side and some on the government’s. The Special Court’s mandate is to try only “those who bear greatest responsibility for atrocities committed in Sierra Leone.”

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The trial of Sesay, Kallon and Gbao lasted nearly five years. All had pleaded not guilty on all counts. The Special Court cannot impose the death penalty. The Revolutionary United Front seized most of Sierra Leone from the government and fought international and African peacekeepers. The capital, Freetown, was retaken by international forces in 2000. The trial of the three former leaders was the last of three to be held at the Special Court, a unique joint project of Sierra Leone and the United Nations. Former Liberian President Charles Taylor is on trial separately at an international court in The Hague for his role in the conflict. The prosecution rested in the Taylor case in January after a year of presenting its arguments. Sierra Leone is known for its diamond wealth, but 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. The Leonardo DiCaprio movie “Blood Diamond” is set in Sierra Leone during the civil war.