Foday Sankoh

08.05.2016 ( Last modified: 07.06.2016 )
Trial Watch would like to remind its users that any person charged by national or international authorities is presumed innocent until proven guilty.


Foday Saybana Sankoh was born on 17 October 1937 in Masang Mayoso, Tonkolili district, Sierra Leone.

He was a corporal in the army of Sierra Leone, a wedding photographer and cameraman for the State television. In the 1970ies he was a student activist. After serving a short prison term for his student activities, he entered a Libyan cold war guerilla camp sponsored by Mohammar Gadhafi. It was here that he met Charles Taylor, his financial mentor and ally in the conflict in Sierra Leone.

In 1998, Sankoh was condemned to death for treason by the High Court of Justice in Freetown. He received however an amnesty on the basis of a clause in the Lomé Peace Agreement concluded in October 1998 by the government and the rebels, which provided for the pardon and amnesty of all the members of the RUF (Revolutionary United Front).

According to the indictment, Sankoh was the leader of the RUF and one of the principal leaders of the alliance between RUF and AFCR (Armed Forces Revolutionary Council). He thus had the authority, control and command over the members of the RUF and the RUF/ AFRC alliance.

Even during times when he was imprisoned in Sierra Leone and Nigeria or when his freedom of movement had been restricted in Sierra Leone between March 1997 and April 1999, and again during his detention from May 2000 in Sierra Leone, he allegedly remained at all these times, the leader of the RUF and co-leader of the AFRC.

During the period covered by the indictment, the RUF and AFRC are said to have, in coordination with or on orders of Sankoh, launched armed attacks on the territory of Sierra Leone. The principal targets of these attacks were the civilian population, humanitarian assistance operations and UN peacekeepers. The attacks allegedly served to terrorize the civilian population or to punish it for the lack of support given to the RUF/ AFRC.
According to the indictment, the attacks were accompanied by murders, physical violence (especially mutilations and rape) against civilian men, women and children, as well as pillaging and the abduction of civilians as sexual slaves, forced labourers or to be enrolled by force (which was particularly the case for many children).
According to the indictment, the RUF and the AFRC shared a common plans and purpose, thus forming a joint criminal enterprise which was aimed at taking any actions necessary to gain and exercise political power and control over the territory of Sierra Leone, in particular the diamond mining areas.

The joint criminal enterprise is said to have included gaining and exercising control over the population of Sierra Leone in order to prevent or minimize resistance to their geographic control, and to use members of the population to provide support to the RUF and AFRC. The acts of terrorism, collective punishments, unlawful killings, abductions, forced labour, physical and sexual violence, use of child soldiers, looting and burning of civilian structures, as alleged in the indictment, were either actions taken within the joint criminal enterprise or were at least a foreseeable consequence of the joint criminal enterprise.

According to the indictment, Sankoh was criminally responsible for the crimes mentioned, in that he planned, instigated or ordered or otherwise aided and abetted in them, or in that they were committed within the joint criminal enterprise, in which he took part.

The indictment also accused him of joint or several responsibility as hierarchical superior for the crimes committed by his subordinates, which he had or should have had knowledge of, but failed to prevent or punish.

On 17 May 2000, Sankoh, fleeing, is arrested following a hostage taking of 500 Blue Berets.


legal procedure

On 17 May 2000, Sankoh, fleeing, is arrested following a hostage taking of 500 Blue Berets.

The trial of Sankoh started on 4 March 2002 before the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

He was indicted on 7 March 2003 on 17 counts of crimes against humanity, violations of Article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions and of Additional Protocol II

On the basis of his acts and omissions and his superior responsibility, the indictment dated of 7 March 2003 hold him responsible on 17 counts :

– crimes against humanity : extermination, murder, rape, sexual slavery, other forms of sexual violence, enslavement, and other inhuman acts as crimes against humanity;
– violations of article 3 common to the Geneva conventions and of its Second Additional Protocol: acts of terrorism, collective punishments, violence to life and person, outrages upon personal dignity, pillage, abductions, and the taking of hostages;
– other serious violations of international humanitarian law, namely the recruitment of children under 15 years into the armed forces, and attacks against humanitarian assistance operations and UN Peacekeepers.

The procedure was chaotic, mainly because of Foday Sankoh’s state of health; the trial was thus adjourned several times.
His lawyer asked several times to stop the trial, because of the worsening accused’s state of health; the Court declined them all.
On 14 May 2002, Foday Sankoh applied to the general election for the position of president, but it was refused.
On 29 Juillet 2003, Sankoh died in custody after a stroke, in an hospital of Freetown.
The indictment was withdrawn on 8 December 2003.



For about eleven years, between the 1991 and the 2002, Sierra Leone was torn apart by a civil war. The government forces – at different stages supported by Nigeria-led ECOMOG forces, Guinea and the United Kingdom – tried to resist continuous attempts of ‘coup d’état’ by some rebel groups, notably the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), supported by the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). A high number of crimes were perpetrated in those years, including murders, mutilations, rapes, abductions and conscription of child soldiers.

Because of such devastation, on 2 June 2000, Sierra Leone’s President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah wrote a letter to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. Kabbah asked the UN for cooperation in bringing to justice those responsible for the crimes perpetrated during the conflict.

A few months later, on 14 August 2000, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1315, mandating the Secretary-General to negotiate the creation of a special tribunal with the Sierra Leonean government. As a result, on 16 January 2002, the UN and Government of Sierra Leone signed the agreement creating the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL).


The SCSL is a criminal tribunal sitting in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Its Appeals Chamber sit however in Leidschendam, near The Hague, in the Netherlands. Like in other “hybrid courts”, the judiciary is composed by both international and national judges. The same holds true for the staff of the other SCSL’s bodies.

The aim of the SCSL is ‘to prosecute persons who bear the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law committed in the territory of Sierra Leone since 30 November 1996, including those leaders who, in committing such crimes, have threatened the establishment of and implementation of the peace process in Sierra Leone’ (SCSL Statute, art. 1).

The Court therefore applies both international and domestic law, by prosecuting on the one hand crimes against humanity, violations of Article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions (1949) and of Additional Protocol II (1977), and other serious violations of international humanitarian law, and on the other hand Sierra Leonean crimes like arson and rape of girls.