This article situates the establishment of the Special Court for Sierra Leone in the wider context of the country's transitional period between 1999 and 2004. During this pivotal period, Sierra Leone experienced a massive state-building intervention to establish the rule of law and introduce democracy. However, this new beginning was characterized by violent clashes between the leaders of the various warring factions who tried to secure political influence and security after the signing of the Lomé Peace Agreement in 1999. The article examines events that resulted in the unravelling of the peace agreement, the establishment of the Special Court and the arrests of hundreds of suspected rebels under a state of emergency, to show how they undermined the lofty promises of justice made by the representatives of the Special Court and the international community. It reveals the limited scope of the retributive project of international criminal justice at the intersections with the business-as-usual political manoeuvres that occurred after the end of the civil war.