The war crimes court for Sierra Leone handed down sentences on Wednesday of up to 52 years in prison for three rebel leaders convicted of overseeing a trail of rapes and killings.>
“The crimes were committed on a massive scale ... Sierra Leoneans were raped, enslaved, hacked to death and brutalized,” judge Pierre Boulet said. “The impact of the crimes on the Sierra Leonean society has been enormous.”
Revolutionary United Front (RUF) interim leader Issa Sesay was sentenced to a total of 693 years. However, as judges ordered separate sentences for 16 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity to be served concurrently, he will spend a maximum of 52 years behind bars.
Morris Kallon, a former RUF commander, will spend a maximum of 40 years in jail on the same basis.
Augustine Gbao, whom the court said was the RUF’s chief ideologist, will spend up to 25 years behind bars.
Sesay’s is the highest sentence ever handed down by the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, which cannot impose a life sentence.
It is the last trial to be held in Freetown by the Sierra Leone tribunal. The ongoing trial of Liberia’s former president Charles Taylor has been moved to the Netherlands for security reasons.
The court was hushed as the judges read out the three-hour judgment and the trio of accused looked dazed as their lengthy jail sentences were handed down.
The west African country is struggling to recover from a brutal civil war.
Between 1991 and 2001, the RUF carried out a series of atrocities in order to try to gain control of Sierra Leone’s lucrative mining districts. The court said the rebels terrorized the civilian population by mass killings, rape and the grisly practice of “short-sleeved and long-sleeved amputations.”
Victims were told to choose between amputation of the arm at the shoulder or amputation of the hand at the wrist.
The rebels used so-called blood diamonds to fund the warfare and forcibly recruited child soldiers.
“Children were deprived of normal education and some of them had the letters of the RUF branded on them as if they were the organization’s property,” Boulet said.
Prosecutor Stephen Rapp welcomed the ruling and said it recognized “the gravity of the terrible atrocities for which these men have been held responsible.”
The case marked the first time that attacks against peacekeepers had been specifically recognized as a war crime by an international court. It was also the first time an international court ruled that forced marriages constituted a crime against humanity.
Human rights organizations hailed the verdict, saying it closed a chapter in the nation’s troubled history.
“The punishment has fitted the crime,” Samuel James, secretary of the Justice non-governmental organization (NGO) said.