Sierra Leone jails pro-govt militia chiefs

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FREETOWN, Oct 9 (Reuters) Sierra Leone's UN-backed Special Court sentenced two former leaders of a pro-government militia to six and eight years in prison today for war crimes during the West African state's 1991-2002 civil conflict.

Moinina Fofana and Allieu Kondewa were leaders of the Civil Defence Forces (CDF), which defended former President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah's government from rebels during a war notorious for atrocities by drugged soldiers, often no more than children.

Rights activists expressed disappointment at the court's leniency, but Judge Benjamin Mutanga Itoe said the defendants' service to democracy had been taken into account.

The two had ''contributed immensely to re-establishing the rule of law in this country'', Itoe told the court.

The pair were convicted in August of war crimes under the Geneva convention -- including murder, cruelty and pillage -- but were acquitted of crimes against humanity.

Kondewa was also found guilty of recruiting child soldiers and was handed the longer, eight-year sentence today. The sentences take effect retroactively from their arrests in 2003.

Justice Rosolu John Bankole Thompson, the only Sierra Leonean on the three-judge panel, had voted to acquit them of all charges in August.

A third defendant, former Defence Minister Hinga Norman, who headed the CDF and was regarded by many Sierra Leoneans as a hero, died in detention in February after a routine operation.

Former President Kabbah stepped down at elections in August, the first since UN peacekeepers left in 2005. His Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) lost power to the All People's Congress (APC) of new President Ernest Bai Koroma.

HIGH PRIEST Sierra Leone's civil war, fuelled by the sale of illegal ''blood diamonds'', was made notorious by images of drug-crazed child soldiers wielding machetes and AK-47s who raped, killed and mutilated civilians. More than 50,000 people were killed.

Prosecutors had described Kondewa as the ''high priest'' of the feared Kamajor traditional hunters who dominated the CDF and are accused of torture and cannibalism.

Among the crimes he was convicted of aiding and abetting was the murder of two women who had sticks inserted into their genitals until they came out of their mouths, Itoe said. The women were disembowelled and their entrails eaten.

''We were expecting more than 30 years because of the crimes they committed,'' said Alex Kaikai, director of local NGO Torture Watch. ''I see my brothers whose limbs have been amputated. I want them to feel the weight of what they have done.'' The jail terms contrasted with sentences imposed in July on three leaders of the rebel Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, which toppled Sierra Leone's government in 1997.

Alex Tamba Brima and Santigie Borbor Kanu were jailed for 50 years each, and Brima Bazzy Kamara for 45 years.

The court's most high profile defendant, former Liberian President Charles Taylor, is on trial in the Netherlands on 11 counts of war crimes for allegedly arming the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in return for gems from the rich eastern diamond fields near the border with Liberia.

Reuters TB VP0055

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