They chopped off hands, legs, lips, ears, breasts. In their decade-long battle to take control of Sierra Leone and its diamond fields, rebels of the Revolutionary United Front wielded their machetes to maim thousands of victims.
On Wednesday, a U.N.-sponsored war crimes court is to deliver verdicts for three of the rebels' commanders accused of crimes against humanity, marking an end to the special tribunal in Freetown, more than four years after their joint trial began.
"There is a great need for the activities of the Special Court, which is a chapter of the war, to be quickly concluded so that the nation can move on," Sierra Leone's president, Ernest Bai Koroma, said last week.
Former interim rebel leader Issa Sesay and battlefield commanders Morris Kallon and Augustine Gbao each face an 18-count indictment and have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them, which include war crimes and crimes against humanity. If convicted, a sentencing hearing is expected in two weeks.
The special tribunal was set up following the end of the West African nation's 10-year conflict in 2002.
It is estimated that about a half-million people were victims of killings, systematic mutilation and other atrocities in Sierra Leone's war, during which illicit diamond sales fueled years of devastation. The conflict was depicted in the 2006 film "Blood Diamond," starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly and Djimon Hounsou.
Prosecutors say the three defendants facing verdicts Wednesday are criminally responsible for crimes committed by the rebels, including the mutilation of civilians, sexual violence and the use of child soldiers. The three also face charges in connection with rebel attacks on U.N. peacekeepers and aid workers.
The court says the trial has marked the first time that forced marriage has been prosecuted before an international criminal court as a crime against humanity.
Sesay, Kallon and Gbao were indicted in 2003 and their joint trial began in 2004. Closing arguments were heard in August and initially a judgment was expected in October, but no reason was given for the delay.
The rebels' founder and longtime leader _ Foday Sankoh, known as 'Pa' to his often drugged and drunken child fighters _ died of natural causes in U.N. custody in 2003. An indictment against a fifth battlefield commander, Sam Bockarie, also was withdrawn in 2003 due to his death.
Wednesday's verdicts are the last of the three Special Court trials to be held in Freetown.
The court's only unfinished business is with former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who is accused of training and backing the Sierra Leonean rebels.
Taylor is being tried in a special session of the Sierra Leonean court in The Hague, Netherlands, for war crimes and crimes against humanity. His trial is being held outside of Freetown because of fears the case could trigger fresh violence and that Taylor might escape from the court jail in Sierra Leone.
Chief Prosecutor Stephen Rapp said Tuesday that the final prosecution witness was completed in the Taylor trial last month and that the defense might begin presenting its case as early as April. A verdict could be reached sometime within the first half of 2010, he said.
The court relies on voluntary contributions from governments, a process which Rapp said has been complicated by the global economic crisis. The court currently faces a shortfall of about $5 million, he said.
"We have to work very hard to convince them, find other states, or to try to get those states who have given us money in the past to increase or accelerate their contributions," he said.
"But we think this crisis will come in June or July, and that gives us three or four months to relieve it and certainly to show the world that we're doing great work, that the court has rendered these historic judgments in Sierra Leone," he added.
Associated Press Writer Krista Larson in Johannesburg contributed to this report.
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Special Court for Sierra Leone: http://www.sc-sl.org
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