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The AFRC Trial: Forced marriage during armed conflict can amount to crimes against humanity
Keywords: Forced marriage, rape, sexual violence, sexual slavery
Deciding body: Special Court for Sierra Leone


In May 1997, the Armed Forces of Sierra Leone seized power from the elected government. Shortly after, they founded the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). From 1997 to 1999, the AFRC allied itself with the Revolutionary United Front to quell the pro-government militia, the Civil Defense Forces.

While in power, the AFRC/RUF coalition undertook any actions necessary to gain and exercise political power and control over Sierra Leone. In particular, the two groups worked together to seize the country’s diamond mining areas. Diamonds were to be provided as compensation for those who gave outside assistance during the conflict. Extreme brutality characterised their violent campaign.  

The armed conflict temporarily ended with the signing of the Lome Peace Accord on 7 July 1999. However, violence soon began to resurface. In 2000, the Government of Sierra Leone sent a request to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to establish a Special Court to prosecute those responsible for the commission of crimes against humanity, war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law during the years of the AFRC/RUF coalition. The UNSC authorised the United Nations Secretary-General to negotiate an agreement with the Government of Sierra Leone and the Special Court for Sierra Leone was created.

What happened? | What was the decision? | Learning from other institutions | Significance


What happened?

Alex Tamba Brima, Ibrahim Bazzy Kamara and Santigie Borbor Kanu were members of the Armed Forces of Sierra Leone and appointed to the AFRC’s Supreme Council (the highest decision-making body of the AFRC) during the coup. Under their reign, numerous atrocities were committed and characterised by their extreme brutality. Children were abducted drugged and recruited as soldiers. Communities were continually raided, civilians would have their limbs amputated and homes set ablaze with family members trapped inside.

The widespread use of gender-based crimes, including forced marriage, sexual enslavement and rape, were perpetrated against women and girls. On one occasion, Brima, Kamara and Kanu were part of an attack on the small rural town of Karina. Upon their arrival, Brima ordered that women should be stripped naked and raped during the attack. Kamara locked five young girls into a house and burned them alive. In this attack and others, pregnant women were targeted and subject to especially brutal acts, with many being murdered. In Bornoya, two AFRC rebels held cut the foetus from a woman’s stomach – she died as a result.

Women and girls throughout Sierra Leone were abducted and forced to become “wives” of AFRC commanders and rebels. Their “husbands” exercised complete control over their lives and many were murdered when trying to escape. Suffering a complete deprivation of liberty, these “wives” were forced to carry the soldiers’ belongings, cook for them and were used sexually. In Bombali District, Kanu created a system to control the abducted women and girls. Any soldier who wanted a “wife” would go to Kanu to sign for her. He also enacted disciplinary measures against women who “misbehaved”. In one instance, Kanu ordered a woman be given a dozen lashes and locked in a box for her suspected “misbehaviour”. Once labelled “wives”, the women and girls were ostracised from their communities. Those that became pregnant as a result of their forced marriages faced long-term social stigmatisation.

Brima and Kamara were indicted on 7 March 2003, and Kanu on 16 September 2003. After review of their cases, the Trial Chamber for the SCSL ordered a joint trial of the three men.  which becomeknown as the ‘AFRC Trial’. On 7 March 2005, the trial opened in Freetown. 59 witnesses were called to testify.

What was the decision?

“…in the context of the Sierra Leone conflict, forced marriage describes a situation in which the perpetrator through his words or conduct, or those of someone for whose actions he is responsible, compels a person by force, threat of force, or coercion to serve as a conjugal partner resulting in severe suffering, or physical, mental or psychological injury to the victim” (para. 169, Appeal)

Through its analysis, the SCSL found Brima, Kamara and Kanu guilty on multiple counts, including terrorism and extermination. With regard to crimes of gender-based violence, the SCSK found the men guilty of:

  • Crime against humanity of rape (Brima, Kamara, Kanu)
  • Outrages upon personal dignity, including sexual enslavement (Brima, Kamara, Kanu)

The evidence presented to the SCSL demonstrated the widespread, systematic and targeted nature of the acts of rape, sexual enslavement and other forms of sexual violence, committed by AFRC forces. Brima, Kamara and Manu could be held criminally responsible for these acts for more than one reason. Each had effective control over AFRC subordinates, and knowledge of the acts being perpetrated. No action was taken to prevent the atrocities, or punish the perpetrators. In some cases, Brima, Kamara and Kanu perpetrated the prohibited acts themselves and/or ordered others to do the same.

Although Brima, Kamara and Kanu were originally charged with individual counts of “sexual slavery and any other form of sexual violence” and “other inhumane act – forced marriage”, the SCSL dismissed them. According to the SCSL, “sexual slavery” and “sexual violence” were two separate crimes that, when combined, prevented the accused from knowing which he was expected to defend himself against. The duplicity of the charge would be a violation of the defendants’ due process rights. Consequently, the count was dismissed as defective and sexual slavery would be alternatively charged under the count of “outrages upon personal dignity”.

The SCSL dismissed the individual count of forced marriage for its redundancy. In considering the nature of the crime, the SCSL focused on the non-sexual elements of forced marriage. This focus was due to the original charge “crimes against humanity – other inhumane acts (forced marriage)”. The SCSL held that “other inhumane acts” was a category reserved for acts primarily non-sexual in nature that violated human dignity (para. 697). For forced marriage to fall under this category, the non-sexual elements of the crime must be sufficiently grave – which the SCSL did not believe was the case. The girls were abducted from their homes to become “wives” of individual rebels. But these relationships were not established to assume a real marital status. They allowed rebels to exercise complete control over their victims – including control of her sexuality. The exercise of ownership over the girls and gravity of the sexual violence perpetrated on them led the SCSL to conclude that forced marriage was completely “subsumed” by the crime of sex slavery.  Forced marriage, then, would be charged alternatively as a form of sexual slavery amounting to “outrages upon personal dignity”.

The Appeal

Although Brima, Kamara and Kanu were found guilty of “outrages upon personal dignity” for their involvement and perpetration of forced marriage, the prosecution was not satisfied with the SCSL’s categorisation of the crime. On appeal, the SCSL Appeals Chamber broke from the earlier decision’s evaluation of the non-sexual elements of forced marriage and categorisation as sexual slavery. In particular, the Appeals Chamber found two distinguishing factors that separated forced marriage from sexual slavery (para. 195):

  1. Forced marriage involves a perpetrator compelling a person by force or threat of force, through the words or conduct of the perpetrator or those associated with him, into a forced conjugal association with a another person resulting in great suffering, or serious physical or mental injury on the part of the victim
  2. Forced marriage implies a relationship of exclusivity between the “husband” and “wife,” which could lead to disciplinary consequences for breach of this exclusive arrangement

Although sexual violence was perpetrated during the forced conjugal relationships, they were not predominantly sexual crimes. Evidence from the trial showed that the suffering caused by being labelled a “wife” was multidimensional. As one expert testified (para. 192):

“‘Bush wives’ were expected to carry out all the functions of a wife and more . . . [S]he was expected to show undying loyalty to her husband for his protection and reward him with ‘love and affection . . . ‘Bush wives’ were constantly sexually abused, physically battered during and after pregnancies, and psychologically terrorised by their husbands, who thereby demonstrated their control over their wives. Physically, most of these girls experienced miscarriages, and received no medical attention at the time . . . Some now experience diverse medical problems such as severe stomach pains . . . some have had their uterus removed; menstrual cycles are irregular; some were infected with sexually transmitted diseases and others tested HIV positive.”

Sexual violence was an element of forced marriage, but it was not predominantly a sexual crime – unlike sexual slavery. Evidence demonstrated the profound physical, moral and psychological suffering endured by the “wives”, many of whom were children. This indicated to the Appeals Chamber that forced marriage was distinct from sexual slavery and constituted a separate category of offense. And, given the intense suffering inflicted on the girls, the Appeals Chamber held that forced marriage was of similar gravity to many other crimes against humanity, including torture, rape enslavement and sexual violence.

For these reasons, the Appeals Chamber found that the SCSL had erred in interpreting forced marriage as a form of sexual slavery. Although this decision would not lead to a new trial on acts “crimes against humanity”, it was determined that forced marriage had occurred as:

  • Crimes against humanity (other inhumane acts – forced marriage)

Learning from other institutions

Throughout the text of the case document, the SCSL’s decisions were supported by what other institutions and authorities had said about forced marriage, sexual slavery, rape and sexual violence. This reinforces the legal value of international standards on gender equality, and helps build a unified global commitment to tackling VAW. Some of the references to these institutions and authorities included (numbers correspond to paragraphs within the case document):


The AFRC trial was the first time that the crime of forced marriage was recognised as a crime under international humanitarian law.

The SCSL’s recognition of force marriage as a crime under international humanitarian law was an important step in recognising the unique experiences of women and girls during armed conflict. It was also an important step in recognising the gravity of gender-based violence and the multiple forms these can take. The Appeal Chamber’s decision broke from earlier interpretations of gender-based crimes as sexual in nature, looking at the crime of forced marriage through a wider lens and considering all implications of the forced conjugal associations.

iconLockWant more? You can read the SCSL Trial Chamber and Appeal Chamber’s decisions on the official SCSL website

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