A UN-backed court convicted three former Sierra Leonean military leaders on multiple counts of war crimes, issuing the first verdicts over the country's brutal civil war and the first-ever conviction for using child soldiers by an international court.
The court found the three defendants guilty on Wednesday of 11 of 14 charges, including terrorism, using child soldiers, enslavement, rape and murder.
The three were acquitted of charges of sexual slavery, "other inhumane acts" related to physical violence and acts related to sexual violence, said Peter Andersen, spokesman for the Sierra Leone Special Court.
The ruling marks the first time an international court has issued a conviction on the conscription of child soldiers -- a practice made notorious by images of drugged elementary-school age boys wielding automatic weapons in the regional conflict.
The Sierra Leone tribunal was set up following the end of fighting in 2002 to prosecute the worst offenders in a war that ravaged the small West African nation and also consumed neighboring Liberia. The court has indicted 12 people, including former Liberian president Charles Taylor, who is charged with backing Sierra Leonean rebels.
The three defendants convicted on Wednesday in Freetown had pleaded not guilty to all the charges, which linked them to fighters who raped women, burned villages, conscripted thousands of child soldiers and forced others to work as laborers in diamond mines.
The men -- Alex Tamba Brima, Brima Bazzy Kamara and Santigie Borbor Kanu -- were indicted in 2003 as the alleged leaders of the junta, called the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council. The group of former military officers toppled Sierra Leone's government in 1997 and then teamed up with rebels to control the country until 1998, according to the indictment.
The judge read the ruling three times -- once for each defendant as the accused stood. The men, all in suits and ties, kept their faces blank during the verdict-reading and then bowed their heads.
Sentencing is scheduled for the middle of next month.
The public gallery was filled with about 200 people, including the defendants' relatives, military officials, police officers and the general public.
David Crane, the founding prosecutor of the Sierra Leone Special Court, called the ruling a watershed moment for human rights.
"It's a huge moment for children around the world who have been oppressed in these conflicts," said David Crane, now a law professor at Syracuse University. "This particular judgment sets the cornerstone forever -- those who recruit children into an armed force are criminally liable."
Although children have been used in wars throughout history, experts say the recruitment and conscription of children reached a new level in Sierra Leone and neighboring Liberia. In Liberia, Charles Taylor's men are accused of organizing the so-called Small Boys Unit, which conscripted boys who were armed with machine guns and baptized them with names like Babykiller.
In Sierra Leone, the proportion of child soldiers to the general population was particularly staggering, with about 30,000 children fighting in a country with a population of about 6 million, said Enrique Restoy, who oversees the region for the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, an advocacy group.
"It's the first place in the world that the use of children became obvious, and was seen everywhere," Restoy said.
The group led by the three men committed their worst atrocities after they were pushed into the bush by an international peacekeeping force in 1998, said Corinne Dufka, a senior researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch. It was then that they started "punishing the civilian population as a whole," she said.
It is estimated that about half a million people were victims of killings, systematic mutilation and other atrocities during the conflict.
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