International criminal courts expert speaks at UNL about high profile war crimes case
Story and photos by Jacob Bryant, NewsNetNebraska
James Johnson, an international criminal courts expert, spoke to a crowd at McCollum Hall on Monday about his experiences working on the special court for Sierra Leone, the third international tribunal of modern time.
Johnson, a UNL alumnus, served as the chief of prosecutions for the special court for Sierra Leone. Through this court, a special chamber tried, and eventually convicted, Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, on 11 counts of aiding and abetting during a civil war with neighboring Sierra Leone. Taylor is serving 50 years in the UK for his crimes.
Unlike past tribunals, the special court was built on location in Sierra Leone, where all the work would be done. “If you want justice to be seen, you must go to where the crime took place,” Johnson said.
Johnson laid out what many of the crimes being committed in Sierra Leone where. Child soldiers were used in the civil war and where considered to be expendable units, over 200,000 women and girls were the subject of violence in Sierra Leone alone during that time. Many of the women were pulled in to forced marriages, which Johnson explained was a step further than a sex slave. Not only were the women sex slaves to the rebel soldiers they were forced to marry, but they were also required to do all the housework for the soldiers.
Many of the civilians were put to forced labor, as well. Their main jobs were often panning and digging for blood diamonds.
“Blood diamonds wasn’t a term coined in Sierra Leone,” Johnson said. “It did become a common term in the area though.”
The primary mandate of the special court for Sierra Leone was to try those who bear the greatest responsibility for the crimes of Sierra Leone. Johnson stressed that the wording of “greatest responsibility” helped them move things along and go for the people higher up.
“We weren’t trying the soldiers on the ground who had pulled the triggers, or performed the rape,” Johnson said. “We were trying the leaders.”
A question from a member of the audience asked how they drew the line of who bore the greatest responsibility. Johnson said that who bore greatest responsibility was up to the prosecutor’s discretion.
In the end, 13 people were indicted and deemed most responsible for the crimes in Sierra Leone. Evidence was presented over the next 13 months and included over 100 witnesses. There were only 21 witnesses for the defense, including Taylor himself.
“We may have toasted a bit when we found Taylor. It’s tough to remember,” Johnson said with a smile.
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