ABIDJAN, 23 January (IRIN) - Barely
six months after its Registrar and Prosecutor arrived to take up their
assignments, the Special Court for Sierra Leone has moved its registry
and administrative branches into its new site in the center of the capital,
"The physical building of the court is moving ahead rapidly, particularly the prefabricated offices for the various branches of the Court and the renovations of the buildings that will be the detention facility," David Hecht, spokesman for the court told IRIN on Thursday.
From a rocky, bushy 11.5 acre area provided by the government in the New England area of the city, on which stood condemned buildings including a former prison training school, fifteen office blocks now stand constructed from 188 prefabricated container-size structures shipped from Slovenia. A local company erected a perimeter fence and renovated former cell blocks of the prison school. These will be used as a detention center for the Court.
"We are going to be operating in a construction site for the next six months. But we are on our way to becoming an international criminal court on schedule to complete our mandate," says Court Registrar, Robin Vincent.
Court has a three year mandate
The court, expected to cost a total of just under US $60 million, was set up to try those who bear greatest responsibility for atrocities committed during Sierra Leone's 10-year armed conflict. It was created through an agreement between the United Nations and the Government of Sierra Leone. With three years to complete its work, the anxiety to get started can be explained.
Since their arrival, the top officials of the court had been operating from temporary offices in Freetown with the Registry housed in a Bank of Sierra Leone building and the Prosecutor elsewhere. Staff for the two departments are also being installed with the overall number of employees of the Court set to increase from seventy to over two hundred in the coming months.
The final phase of construction will be the Court House. The Registry is currently tendering bids for the design and the building is to be complete mid-2003. It will be the center piece of the Special Court complex and a landmark for the city of Freetown, says Hecht.
Accommodation is however the first challenge the court faces. Anxious Sierra Leoneans quickly want it to commence the lengthy process of brining to book those believed to have been responsible for atrocities during the war.
But officials insist they are moving methodically: "We cannot say when trials start until we have indictments and indictments are not something one usually announces in advance. Certainly the Prosecutor and his team are conducting investigations but they have not come out with details yet regarding their findings of suspected mass grave or other things," Hecht told IRIN.
Mass murder sites
In September, the court cordoned off a suspected mass murder site, dating back to Sierra Leone's civil war, around a flooded diamond mining pit in Tombudu, in the eastern district of Kono. Local residents believe that bodies of hundreds of civilians were dumped there after they were killed during an attack on the village in 1998.
Chief of Investigations, Al White, showed reporters bones and other remains at the edge of the pit, which, he said, were clearly human. The site was the first alleged crime scene officially cordoned off by Sierra Leonean and international investigators working for the court.
However there were also signs of alleged atrocities committed elsewhere in the village. White showed reporters a house in the village that contained numerous human skulls and other human remains, but said the site had been tampered with and was of limited use to investigators. Other mass graves and killing sites identified in a preliminary assessment by an Argentine team of forensic experts are in the districts of Kambia, Port Loko, Kailahun and Kono.
Many of the atrocities committed during the 1991-2001 war in Sierra Leone, are believed to have been the acts of rebels of the Revolutionary United Front led by Foday Sankoh who is currently in jail, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and the West Side Boys, a splinter group of the AFRC. The atrocities included amputations of limbs and rape.
On 15 January, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a new report that throughout the war, thousands of women and girls were subjected to widespread and systematic sexual violence perpetrated by both sides in the conflict, but mostly by the rebels.
In a report, "We'll kill you if you cry - Sexual Violence in the Sierra Leone Conflict", HRW said the victims, women of all ages, ethnic groups and socio-economic classes were subjected to individual and gang rape, and rape with objects such as weapons, firewood, umbrellas and pestles.
"The crimes of sexual violence were generally characterised by extraordinary brutality and frequently preceded or followed by other egregious human rights abuses against the victim, her family and community...the rebels raped indiscriminately irrespective of age, they targeted young women and girls whom they thought were virgins. Many of the younger victims did not survive these crimes of sexual violence." Adult women were raped so violently that they sometimes bled to death or suffered from tearing in the genital area, causing long term incontinence and severe infections.
Judges are in place
The special court judges were sworn in during December, in a high profile event in Freetown. They included eight trial and appeals judges - three appointed by the government of Sierra Leone and five appointed by the UN Secretary General. They are Renate Winter from Austria, Geoffrey Robertson from England, Pierre Boutet from Canada, Rosolu John Bankole Thompson of Sierra Leone, Benjamin M. Iteo from Cameroon, Hassan B. Jallow of The Gambia, Emmanuel O. Ayoola of Nigeria and George Gelaga King of Sierra Leonean.
Geoffrey Robertson and Bankole Thompson were elected by their colleagues as president of the court and presiding judge of the trial chamber, respectively.
Officials say the court is different from the other international tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. "The Court is located in the country where the crimes took place and its jurisdiction goes beyond international crimes against humanity to also include certain crimes committed under Sierra Leonean law," the officials said.
The court is intended to work side by side with Sierra Leone's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The court's chief prosecutor, David Crane, said in December that the Court and TRC would operate independently, but both would work towards the ultimate goal of addressing respect for human rights and accountability for those who committed abuse during the war. TRC testimonies, he added, would not be used by the Court.
"While the TRC will function more as a public forum for people to tell their stories and express their grievances without power to punish, the Special Court will run as a tribunal that will seek to punish those most responsible for violations of international," Crane said.
Not everybody is convinced. Mohammed Bangura, a hotel employee in Freetown said he did not expect "anything much from the Court". Officials however countered this. A few members of the national amputees association - a grouping of Sierra Leoneans who suffered amputations during the war- last month also said they would not cooperate with the court. They argued that they had been ignored by both the government and the international community, hence their decision to denounce the court.
""There is a strong feeling that there has to be some accountability for what happened," Hecht told IRIN. "Most people are quite aware that the court is not going to be looking at each individual, but rather at those who bear the greatest responsibility."
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