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Look out, General Motors. Move over, Toyota. Sierra Leone is introducing its own brand of hybrid — and it’s attracting significant attention from, well, lawyers and politicians. In its drive to justice following a decade of civil war, Sierra Leone is betting on a special international court with strong national ties. The Special Court for Sierra Leone has already built a promising track record of five convictions for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Now it is revving up for its biggest challenge: the next phase in the trial of Charles Taylor. The claim is that the former Liberian president actively supported rebel forces in neighboring Sierra Leone during the latter country’s bloody conflict. His trial before the special court resumed this year after a postponement to give a new defense team time to prepare. The true test of Sierra Leone’s hybrid court will be the degree to which the Taylor trial and others help close the chapter on the atrocities that befell the West African country. A NEW DESIGN It’s proof of the yearning for peace that in the years after a civil war, people turn to courts to mete out justice. But designing a court system that can help mend the tattered social fabric or bring ordinary citizens together to build a better future is no easy task. Purely national tribunals run the risk of being — and being seen as — biased, retaliatory and divisive. Defendants may receive support from their remaining loyalists. Trials can become circuses. And in the worst case, bloodshed erupts again. International tribunals sometimes fare no better. Perceived by locals as a form of distinctly pro-Western meddling, such proceedings may lack the on-the-ground credibility essential to heal deep wounds. Enter the Special Court for Sierra Leone, established at the request of the new government in 2002. Instead of opting for either an international or national model, Sierra Leone chose to design a special court that could meld the credibility of a local tribunal with the safety valves of an international one. With the exception of the Taylor trial, which is being conducted in The Hague because of security concerns, all proceedings of the special court take place in Sierra Leone itself. This represents a marked departure from previous efforts to deal with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Two well-known tribunals formed in the 1990s — the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda — have both operated largely outside the borders of the country where the alleged crimes took place. Both of those courts are also under the authority of and funded and staffed by the United Nations. Not Sierra Leone’s court. The special court is not funded or staffed directly by that international body. Moreover, prosecutors have the option to pursue indictments under international or national law. So far, they have chosen not to proceed under the domestic law of Sierra Leone — which has drawn criticism. But the option remains. That said, the tribunal will ultimately be judged on whether, in the eyes of the local people, it offers a fair and functioning judicial system that brings closure to the conflict. Intermediate panel decisions, handed down in May of this year, in the cases of Allieu Kondewa and Moinina Fofana suggest that the special court is doing just that. Kondewa and Fofana fought against the rebels backed by Charles Taylor. The fact that those on opposing sides of the civil war are being prosecuted and that the May decisions overturned convictions on some counts and reconfirmed others suggests that the court is acting impartially, guided by the rule of law. Time will tell. But what really makes the Sierra Leone court special is how it has worked to obtain and maintain the active buy-in of the population. The court’s outreach program is, in the words of chief prosecutor Stephen Rapp, “a model for almost any justice system in the world.” CONSUMER DEMAND Outreach efforts, dubbed the Grass­roots Awareness Campaign, focus on town meetings and grass-roots organizing. Both are crucial in a country with a critical lack of infrastructure, which leads to great difficulty in reaching isolated areas. These initiatives are coupled with a concerted effort to obtain increased media coverage. As Robert Alsdorf, chairman of the American Bar Association’s Sierra Leone Task Force, reported last year, this outreach has been “so successful” that the international courts for Yugoslavia and Rwanda have come to study the process. Town meetings keep citizens in remote communities informed about how the special court operates, who is being brought to justice, and how the cases are progressing. These meetings also give citizens the chance to ask questions and air concerns about the pursuit of justice. The court says there are more than 1,500 outreach meetings a year. Conducted by court staff members, the gatherings reportedly draw anywhere from 50 to 400 people. Videos are shown. Key members of the court — including the chief prosecutor, the principal defender, and the registrar — even go off-road to remote areas to conduct meetings. And because those in neighboring countries suffered during the civil war too, there is reportedly an effort to extend outreach efforts to Liberia and Guinea. Another key feature of the court’s outreach are the Accountability Now Clubs, a form of grass-roots organizing geared toward high school and college students. A representative of the court has advised us that the clubs are meant to build support for the rule of law, good governance, and a national judicial system over the long term: “We hope that these clubs instill a thirst for justice and the means for achieving it so the court’s legacy will not merely be a fair trial for Charles Taylor and the righting of wrongs committed by his regime.” The third leg of the court’s outreach efforts is the strengthening of media coverage. Already, two independent organizations not affiliated with the court — the BBC World Service Trust (the BBC’s human rights charity) and Search for Common Ground (a nonprofit organization focused on peaceful conflict resolution) — have ongoing media efforts in Sierra Leone. The special court hopes that such increased attention will show the openness and transparency of the court’s proceedings and ultimately increase its legitimacy — particularly as Sierra Leone itself struggles with the concept of a free and impartial press. THE ROAD AHEAD Although a solid source of pride within Sierra Leone, this type of judicial effort also presents obvious financial challenges. Without the deep pockets of the United Nations, the special court is forced to rely solely on voluntary contributions from donor countries. It is not easy to adjudicate a case involving alleged crimes against humanity; it is even harder to do without the necessary financial resources. Whatever the ultimate success of the Special Court for Sierra Leone — and its full impact remains to be determined — it is a solid and creative attempt to combine the best practices of international law with the legitimacy of a local court. It offers a vehicle for healing national wounds, bringing criminals to justice and permitting citizens to actively participate in legitimate trials. It may yet achieve what everyone should want: confidence in the rule of law and the glimmer of a brighter, more stable future. Alexander Koff is a partner and Joseph L. Morales is an associate in the Baltimore office of Whiteford, Taylor & Preston. Koff chairs the firm’s global practice.

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