War crimes trials begin in Sierra Leone

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Rebels may have hacked off his right hand five years ago but they did not rob Jabati Mambu of his ambition to become a defence lawyer.

Rebels may have hacked off his right hand five years ago but they did not rob Jabati Mambu of his ambition to become a defence lawyer.

And as the suspected ringleaders of Sierra Leone's brutal civil war go on trial today, the 20-year-old prospective law student will have a ringside seat for a piece of legal history.

The Sierra Leone Special Court is the first international war crimes tribunal with local and UN-backed judges sitting side by side at the scene of the atrocities in an attempt to deliver quicker, cheaper justice.

First in the dock, however, are not the rebel leaders who sparked the diamond-fuelled conflict, but a former minister and the top guard of the Civil Defence Forces (CDF), the pro-government militia.

Britain's intervention in its former colony helped restore President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah to power and end a decade-long civil war that killed 75,000 people and left many more with stumps and scars for limbs and lips; but now Sam Hinga Norman, a one-time presidential ally, faces eight counts of crimes against humanity.

Mr Norman served as Mr Kabbah's deputy defence minister in the final years of the war and was promoted to interior minister after the post-war elections in May 2002. David Crane, a prosecutor, told The Independent: "The horrors perpetrated by all parties, including the CDF, are beyond imagination."

Mr Norman has pleaded not guilty to all charges. The prosecution alleges that, as the CDF's national co-ordinator, he commanded his warriors to target men, women and children suspected of supporting or simply failing to actively resist the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF). "Victims were often shot, hacked to death or burnt to death. Other practices included human sacrifices and cannibalism," court documents, detailing the CDF crimes, say.

Mr Norman's arrest caused a stir in Sierra Leone, as many people, particularly in the diamond-rich east and coastal south, considered him a hero for liberating the country from rebel clutches. "My dad fought for the restoration of democracy and so it confounds me that today he is a sacrificial lamb," his daughter Juliet told local media when the court officially opened this March.

Ever since his arrest, there have been rumours that Mr Norman's supporters were planning some sort of action. Earlier this year, the court cut off his telephone privileges for a fortnight after intercepting a conversation that suggested he was co-coordinating civil unrest. But nothing has materialised so far.

Walking around the capital Freetown, still marked with the scars of war, it is easy to find ordinary residents who think Mr Norman has been turned into the government scapegoat. "I'm sure he didn't do anything without the knowledge of the President," said 26-year-old shop assistant Williamson, who didn't want to give his surname.

Mr Crane, who did legal battle for the Pentagon before taking on the Sierra Leone mantle, is adamant the prosecution is not turning a blind eye to anyone. "I can assure you that we will follow the evidence wherever it may lead. We have not been shy of indicting anybody, including heads of state," he said.

Indeed, the prosecutor indicted Charles Taylor when he was still president of neighbouring Liberia, accusing him of arming the rebels in return for diamonds. Last year, after a bloody end to Liberia's own war, a deposed Mr Taylor fled to Nigeria, which has proved reluctant to hand him over. This week Mr Taylor's lawyers lost an appeal for him to have immunity from prosecution. But will Mr Taylor actually end up on trial in Freetown? The cynics dismiss it outright and even the optimists acknowledge the uphill struggle.

As the first trio of trials kicks off, some analysts say that Mr Taylor's absence and the death of his friend and RUF leader, Foday Sankoh, undermine the court's credibility. Sankoh, the notorious rebel chief who made mutilations his signature, died in custody a year ago.

In fact with just nine people in detention, the court's action might look surprisingly limited. But from the start, the tribunal stressed that, in the interests of cost, time and practicality, it would focus on those who "bear the greatest responsibility".

Jabati knows that the man who actually plunged him into his nightmare will never be punished. With a faraway look in this eye, he remembers how the axe had already cut into his left arm, when he pleaded that he was just a student. The commander simply cackled, abandoned the left hand and deliberately chopped off the right, writing, one. But Jabati still believes justice is within his grasp. "My hand is gone, there's no replacement, but the court might help alleviate the injury in my heart and is the only way we will get satisfaction."

Outside the barbed-wire-ringed bubble, not everyone has been caught up in court fever. "How many houses could they have built for us, the people in need, with the money that they spent on this court?" moaned Ibrahim Turay, a street vendor. An estimated 70 percent of the population is unemployed in this West African country, and life expectancy is below 40 years. John Mitchiner, the British High Commissioner, told The Independent: "The security situation is pretty stable internally... it's very much an economic threat now."