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Sierra Leone: AI Calls for Lifting of Amnesty

By  | 29 June 2007 at 23:02 | 499 views

The war in Sierra Leone, which officially ended in 2002, caused huge damage in terms of human lives and infrastructure far in excess of what has happened in many trouble spots in the world. At a time when most of the country’s media practitioners had either gone underground or fled the country, human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch continued to investigate and report on the atrocities that were being committed in the country, leading to the arrest and indictment of several individuals by the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

In this exclusive interview with the Patriotic Vanguard, Hugo Relva(photo), a researcher on Sierra Leone and Amnesty International legal adviser, maintains that the carnage that occurred in Sierra Leone can only be prevented in the future if all the individuals that committed atrocities in that country are identified and punished and repaations paid to their victims. Here is Hugo:

Patriotic Vanguard: Who is Hugo Relva? Please introduce yourself to our readers.

Hugo Relva: I am a legal adviser at the International Justice Project of Amnesty International. I am an Argentine lawyer working from London and Buenos Aires. I have been following the Special Court developments since 2004, when I visited Freetown.

PV: Many people in Sierra Leone are of the opinion that apart from Charles Taylor, the people currently facing trial at the Special Court for Sierra Leone are nobodies. That major players like Foday Sankoh, Sam Bockarie (Maskita), Hingha Norman and Johnny Paul Koroma are either dead or on the run. That the Special Court has lost its relevance. Your comments, please.

HR: On the contrary, Amnesty International thinks that the relevance of the Special Court for Sierra Leone is enormous. For example, Charles Taylor is one of the very few former heads of State in the world that is brought before courts for atrocious crimes committed during the 11 years of violent conflict in Sierra Leone. And recently, the Special Court for Sierra Leone Trial Chamber found that Alex Brima, Brima Kamara and Santigie Kanu, all senior commanders of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), are guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes. Furthermore, trials have also started for five others bearing the greatest responsibility (Issa Sessay, Morris Kallon, Augustine Bgao, Moinina Fofana and Allieu Kondewa).

PV:In the recent Amnesty International report on Sierra Leone, the organization is of the opinion that more people should face the law for the crimes committed against the people of Sierra Leone. What people are AI specifically talking about?

HR: Although Amnesty International does not believe that the Special Court should just try nine alleged perpetrators - the number should be much higher - its contribution has been crucial in the fight against impunity in Sierra Leone and others African countries. Unfortunately, due to a provision contained in the Lomé Agreement an amnesty has been granted by the Government of Sierra Leone to all combatants and collaborators in respect of anything done by them during the 11 years of conflict. Save the nine people indicted by the Special Court - the amnesty provision is not a bar for trials before it - all others are covered by such a provision.

Amnesty International calls on the Government of Sierra Leone to take the following steps:

1. set the amnesty aside since, as it is well known, amnesties are not an obstacle under international law to trials aimed to find out what happened to victims of terrible crimes and who the responsible are. If those responsible of crimes under international law go unpunished they could well think they could commit the crimes again.

2. Define war crimes,crimes against humanity and other crimes under international law as crimes under Sierra Leone law.

3. Enact legislation giving victims and their families the right to reparations for crimes under international law and effective procedures, such as class actions, for obtaining reparations.

4. Allocate sufficient resources to strengthen the existing justice system to investigate and prosecute such crimes

Relatives of victims have the right to find out the truth and this right may not be prevented by an amnesty or any other similar measures. Furthermore, if justice is not done in Sierra Leone all states are permitted or, in certain cases, obliged, to exercise their jurisdiction for crimes committed in Sierra Leone, regardless of nationality of the perpetrators or victims or if national interests have been harmed.

PV: What, in your opinion, should be done to prevent the atrocities committed in Sierra Leone and other parts of the world?

HR: Preventing atrocities is a complex issue but a first step must be, as said, to bring all perpetrators to justice, with no exception of any kind.

PV: Please explain for our readers what is meant by "war crimes" and "crimes against humanity" with regard to Sierra Leone.

HR: Crimes against humanity and war crimes are legal concepts, both defined by the Statute of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The Statute provides that crimes against humanity are crimes committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against any civilian population, such as murder, enslavement, torture, rape, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy and any other form of sexual violence, among other inhuman acts.

War crimes may be defined as serious violations of the law applicable to armed conflicts, committed either in an international armed conflict or in an internal armed conflict, as the one which occurred in Sierra Leone. War crimes includes attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities, willful killing, rape, enforced prostitution, conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 years into armed forces or groups or using them to participate actively in hostilities; torture, mutilation, hostage-taking, etc.

PV: AI says reparations should be provided for war victims in Sierra Leone. How could such reparations be collected or administered and how could the victims be identified apart from the obvious ones like the amputees?

HR: All victims of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in the conflict have a right to full and effective reparations. Amnesty International is calling for a range of measures to address the suffering of victims which has largely gone unrecognized in Sierra Leone. In particular, the Fund for War victims in the Lome Agreement must be established without further delay as a source of funds for providing reparations to victims. The government representing the state which failed to protect its citizen and whose agents committed crimes has a responsibility to ensure reparations to victims and must therefore contribute significantly to the fund. Furthermore, the government should ensure that the reparations programme set out in the Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are fully implemented.

In addition, Sierra Leone should enact legislation giving victims and their families the right to reparations (restitution, rehabilitation, compensation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition) for crimes under international law regardless when they were committed and who committed them. Furthermore, Sierra Leone should establish effective procedures, such as class actions, for obtaining reparations. To make these procedures work, Sierra Leone should establish a long-term plan to train sufficient lawyers to represent victims and their families and suspected perpetrators and to run the justice system, such as judges and clerical staff. The funds necessary, although substantial, would be a small part of the total national budget and would be a key part of re-establishing the rule of law, helping victims and their families get on with their lives and preventing a repetition of such crimes in the future.

PV:Thank you very much for your time.

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