FREETOWN, Feb 24 – Sierra Leone’s war crimes tribunal will hand down a verdict Wednesday against three rebel RUF commanders accused of carrying out a spree of killings, rapes and mutilations fuelled by "blood diamonds."
The verdict is eagerly awaited by the victims, who still bear the psychological and physical scars of the rebels’ atrocities.
"My expectation is to see justice done," 25-year-old Isatu Sillah, who was gang raped by teenage RUF fighters in 2001, told AFP.
The three senior commanders of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), Issa Sesay, Morris Kallon and Augustine Gbao, face 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The accusations include murder, rape, sexual enslavement, cruel treatment, using child soldiers and attacks on UN soldiers during Sierra Leone’s 1991-2001 civil war .
By the time the conflict ended, some 120,000 people were killed while tens of thousands were mutilated, their arms, legs, noses or ears cut off.
The three men have denied the charges against them.
On Wednesday the court will only rule on whether the suspects are guilty or not. The sentences, if guilt is found, will be issued at separate hearings.
Sesay, Kallon and Gbao were among the "most senior members of the RUF" and involved in a joint criminal enterprise with former Liberian president Charles Taylor to control the diamond fields of Sierra Leone to finance their warfare, according to prosecutors.
RUF rebels terrorised the civilian population of Sierra Leone. They killed and raped at will and forced people to work in the RUF-controlled diamond fields.
During the trial the 75 witnesses presented by the prosecution told harrowing tales of atrocities.
One witness recalled how he and his children were forced to watch how his wife was first gang raped by eight rebel soldiers before being killed. Another witness said he saw rebels force a young boy to have sex with a woman.
When he was unable to perform rebels "started slashing this fellow’s private (parts) and slitting the lady’s privates so this lady would not meet with any other individual in her life", he told the judges.
Another tactic favoured by the rebels was amputating hands and arms or carving the initials RUF into the bodies of their victims.
The RUF was notorious for using so-called Small Boys Units, boys forcibly recruited and issued with AK-47’s. The child soldiers had a reputation of particular cruelty among the civilian population.
The three RUF leaders were initially indicted along with the RUF’s founder and close Taylor ally Foday Sankoh, who died in custody before the case ever came to trial.
Charles Taylor is currently on trial in a separate case before the Special Court for Sierra Leone, sitting in The Hague for those proceedings. He faces 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Sesay, 38, Kallon, 45, and 60-year-old Gbao went on trial in June 2004. Their defence says they are not responsible for the atrocities.
Sesay’s lawyers have tried to cast him as a peacemaker because he signed the Lome peace agreement which ended the war.
Kallon and Gbao have both attacked the prosecution case and witnesses saying there was no evidence they were directly involved in atrocities.
Human rights organisations in Sierra Leone stressed the importance of a balanced verdict in the case.
"We expect a fair judgment (and) for the RUF to be treated fairly. The verdict should be beyond all reasonable doubt," said Charles Mambu of the Coalition of Civil Society and Human Rights.
The RUF case is the last of the three special court trials held in Freetown. The only trial still ongoing before the Sierra Leone tribunal is Taylor’s case, which was moved to The Hague for security reasons.