As the trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor resumed this week, the convicted former interim leader of the Sierra Leonean rebel group which Mr. Taylor is accused of supporting continued distancing Mr. Taylor from the activities of his rebel group during Sierra Leone’s bloody civil conflict that lasted from 1991 to 2002. Issa Hassan Sesay, who is taking time from his 52 years jail sentence in a Rwandan cell told Special Court for Sierra Leone judges this week that he was not made interim leader of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel group by Mr. Taylor alone but rather by a group of West African leaders after a meeting in the Liberian capital Monrovia. The former rebel leader also denied claims that an operation undertaken to free the rebel group’s main leader was planned in Monrovia with Mr. Taylor’s involvement.
On Monday, Mr. Sesay denied claims that he was appointed as leader of the RUF in May 2000 by Mr. Taylor (a claim that the former Liberian president has also denied). According to Mr. Sesay, his appointment as leader of the RUF was made by West African leaders at a meeting in Liberia. He said that the West African leaders told him that working with the RUF leader, Foday Sankoh, to bring the Sierra Leonean conflict to an end had become impossible. The leaders present at the meeting were Mr. Taylor, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, former Togolese president Gnassingbe Eyadema, former Malian presiden Alpha Oumar Konare and Gambian president Yayah Jammeh, Mr. Sesay said.
Mr. Sesay explained that “…during that meeting, the Heads of States spoke one after another but the main thrust of their discussion was that they were the moral guarantors of the Lome Peace Accord [peace agreement between the RUF and the Sierra Leone government] and that they were no longer able to work with Foday Sankoh.”
“President Obasanjo asked Mr. Taylor that the time you were negotiating the release of the peacekeepers, ‘who did you speak with?’ and Mr. Taylor said it was this young man sitting here. And Obasanjo said ‘well it seems like Issa is someone who listens to people so do you think we should give him the leadership?’ and Mr. Taylor said ‘yes, Issa is a man that listens to people’,” Mr. Sesay said.
According to Mr. Sesay, he insisted that Mr. Sankoh be consulted on the matter. He then wrote a letter which the West African leaders took to Mr. Sankoh (who was then in the custody of Sierra Leone government). Mr. Sankoh wanted another RUF commander, Mike Lamin, to be given the RUF leadership but according to Mr. Sesay, the West African leaders insisted that Mr. Sesay was the person with whom they were prepared to work.
At a second meeting that was held at the Roberts International Airport (RIA) in Monrovia, the West African leaders informed Mr. Sesay that they had got support from other West African leaders — including Sierra Leone’s president Ahmed Tejan Kabbah –that he (Sesay) was to become leader of the RUF. The following day, a helicopter flew Mr. Sesay from Monrovia to the Liberian town of Foya, before he proceeded to Sierra Leone.
Prosecutors have long maintained that it was Mr. Taylor who appointed Mr. Sesay as leader of the RUF. This, prosecutors say points to the control that Mr. Taylor had over the Sierra Leonean rebels. Prosecution witnesses have also testified that it was Mr. Taylor who made Mr. Sesay leader of the RUF and that on his return to Sierra Leone via Foya, Mr. Taylor had given Mr. Sesay supplies of arms and ammunition which were dropped at Foya by the same helicopter that Mr. Sesay had used, and were then transported to Sierra Leone. On Monday, Mr. Sesay described these accounts as false.
“Were you appointed leader of the RUF by Charles Taylor alone?” Courtenay Griffiths, lead defense lawyer for Mr. Taylor asked Mr. Sesay.
“No. In fact, it was Obasanjo who brought about the idea,” Mr. Sesay responded.
When asked whether he returned to Sierra Leone with a consignment of arms and ammunition, Mr. Sesay said “no, not at all.”
The former rebel leader insisted that Mr. Taylor never at any point gave him arms and ammunition to be taken to Sierra Leone.
Also on Monday, the judges accepted a prosecution request that the testimony of British supermodel Naomi Campbell be heard on Thursday August 5 instead of Thursday July 29 2010 as originally indicated in the subpoena which ordered Ms. Campbell to testify. Ms. Campbell’s testimony relates to allegations that Mr. Taylor sent men to deliver rough diamonds to her as gift while they were both in South Africa in 1997. Mr. Taylor himself has denied that this ever happened.
On Tuesday, Mr. Taylor’s defense lawyers cited a high ranking United Nations official who said that West African leaders supported the replacement of the RUF rebel leader in the name of securing peace in the war-town nation. Reading from a 2008 statement, Mr. Taylor’s team sought to further distance the former Liberian president from prosecution claims that he controlled the RUF rebels during their brutal rampage throughout the country’s 11-year civil war.
According to a statement by the former Special Representative of the UN Secretary General (SRSG) to Sierra Leone, Ambassador Oluyemi Adeneji, read in the Special Court for Sierra Leone on Tuesday, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) leaders were fully supportive of Mr. Sesay taking over the leadership of the RUF when peace negotiations were getting tough.
“ECOWAS was unequivocal in support of Sesay and were prepared to work with Sesay alone,” the statement quoted Ambassador Adeneji as saying.
While Ambassador Adeneji noted the support Mr. Sesay received from ECOWAS leaders, he was clear in his statement that he could not remember the circumstances surrounding Mr. Sesay’s appointment as leader of the RUF.
“I cannot remember the details of Sesay’s appointment as leader of the RUF but I do know that ECOWAS accepted Sesay as leader of the RUF,” the Ambassador said.
The Ambassador added in his statement that “it was agreed that [Foday] Sankoh was no longer a reliable point person for peace and that ECOWAS should identify a reliable commander in the RUF.”
“Sankoh remained uncommitted to the peace process…Sankoh made quick promises to the resolution of the crisis but did not keep them,” the Ambassador said, citing the abduction of UN peacekeepers by the RUF in May 2000 as an example.
Mr. Taylor’s defense lawyer also on Tuesday read a statement that was made to Mr. Sesay’s lawyers in Freetown by the former Force Commander of UN peacekeepers in Sierra Leone, General Daniel Opande, who said that ECOWAS leaders were looking for a reliable person in the RUF that they would deal with because Mr. Sankoh was not reliable.
“Sankoh was no longer seen as a reliable leader for peace and they [ECOWAS] began to look among the RUF for another leader,” General Opande said.
That search eventually led to the appointment of Mr. Sesay.
On Wednesday, Mr. Sesay told the court that an alleged operation which aimed to free RUF leader Mr. Sankoh from jail was not planned in cahoots with Mr. Taylor in Liberia, but was instead a series of independent attacks planned by the RUF rebel forces themselves and disconnected from their leader’s incarceration.
It is alleged that in 1998, the RUF executed “Operation Free the Leader,” an operation aimed at freeing RUF leader Mr. Sankoh from jail. The plan, according to prosecution witnesses included attacks on the diamond rich town of Kono, Makeni in northern Sierra Leone and the country’s capital Freetown.
In 2008, a protected prosecution witness had testified that top RUF commander, Sam Bockarie, had met with Mr. Taylor in Monrovia in 1998. Mr Bockarie had told his troops upon his return that the former Liberian president had hatched the plan, the witness had told the court. The prosecution witness had also said that the attack on Kono was to be led by Mr. Sesay (the current witness), the Makeni attack was to be led by RUF commander Superman, while the final attack on Freetown, was to be spearheaded by former Sierra Leonean soldier, Soloman Anthony James Musa (SAJ Musa) from the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC).
On Wednesday, Mr. Sesay, who admitted that he led the attack on Kono, told court that the prosecution witness had lied about Mr. Taylor’s involvement.
“The decision to attack Kono, Mr. Sesay, was that designed by Charles Taylor?” Mr. Griffiths asked Mr. Sesay.
“No, not at all. It was a mission planned by Sam Bockarie at the meeting we held at Waterworks [a place in Kailahun, an eastern Sierra Leonean town] and he never said that the plan was designed by Charles Taylor,” Mr. Sesay said
When told by Mr. Griffiths that the prosecution witness had told the court that “the decision to attack Kono, Makeni and Freetown was planned in Monrovia, brought to Sierra Leone by Sam Bockarie and Sam Bockarie gave the order to SAJ Musa to lead the Freetown leg of the operation,” Mr. Sesay responded that “this is a bloody lie.”
“Did Sam Bockarie send a message to SAJ Musa giving him the role of moving to Freetown?” Mr. Griffiths asked Mr. Sesay.
“No, not at all,” Mr. Sesay responded.
“The attack on Freetown was an AFRC affair and before December 1998, Sam Bockarie and SAJ Musa were not even talking to each other.”
The prosecution witness who testified in 2008 told the court that when SAJ Musa refused to take instructions from the RUF’s Mr. Bockarie about the implementation of the operation, the RUF commander made a complaint to Mr. Taylor. The witness had also stated that Mr. Taylor had control over both fighting groups who had joined forces in Sierra Leone – the RUF and the AFRC.
“Do you recall Sam Bockarie making such a complaint to Mr. Taylor about SAJ Musa’s refusal to take instructions for this operation?” Mr. Griffiths asked Mr. Sesay.
“No. This is my first time hearing about this issue…until December 98 when SAJ Musa died, they never had any business of operation,” Mr. Sesay said.
Mr. Sesay denied the assertion that an operation code named “Operation Free the Leader” had even been planned at a meeting of RUF commanders.
“I do not recall any operation we named “Operation Free the Leader”…you know that sometimes when you carry out any successful operation, fighters will give it any kind of name but to say that we named any operation or Bockarie planned Operation Free the Leader, no,” Mr. Sesay explained.
According to Mr. Sesay, the plan that was discussed at the Waterworks meeting had nothing to do with Mr. Sankoh or a plan to attack Freetown. The said meeting focused mainly on the attack on Kono, Mr. Sesay told the court.
“We did not have any discussions about Mr. Sankoh and we did not have any discussions about attacking Freetown during that meeting. The only thing that was discussed at the meeting was attacking Kono,” Mr. Sesay said.
On Thursday, the court heard the entire proceedings in private session as Mr. Sesay was responding to the testimonies of prosecution witnesses whose testimonies were heard in private/closed session and a discussion of such evidence in public would disclose the identities of those witnesses.
On Friday, Mr. Sesay testified that Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) leader Johnny Paul Koroma did not have any communication with Charles Taylor during the reign of the AFRC from 1997 to 1998.
Prosecutors have alleged that when members of the Sierra Leone army overthrew the democratic government of Sierra Leone and teamed up with RUF rebels to form the AFRC regime in 1997, the regime’s leader had communications with Mr. Taylor, during which time Mr. Taylor gave advise to Mr. Koroma and assured the AFRC junta regime of his assistance. On Friday, Mr. Sesay, who was a senior RUF commander and member of the AFRC’s highest decision maknig body, the Supreme Council denied these claims, telling the judges that there was no contact between the two men.
“Did Johnny Paul Koroma ever indicate to you or the Council [AFRC Supreme Council] that he was in telephone contact with Charles Taylor,” Mr. Griffiths asked Mr. Taylor on Friday.
“No. Johnny Paul never indicated to the Council that he was in contact with Charles Taylor,” Mr. Sesay responded.
Mr. Sesay denied claims that Mr. Koroma sought advise from Mr. Taylor after allegations surfaced that AFRC and RUF fighters, including Mr. Sesay himself had looted the Iranina embassy in Freetown. A previous prosecution witness testified in 2008 that after the said incident, Mr. Koroma had informed Mr. Taylor and that the former Liberian president advised Mr. Koroma to set up a board of inquiry to investigate the incident and punish all those responsible. On Friday, Mr. Sesay said that while it is true that a board of inquiry was set up to look into the incident, such advise did not come from Mr. Taylor.
“Now Mr. Sesay, as far as you are aware, did Johnny Paul contact Mr. Taylor about this incident?” Mr. Griffiths asked Mr. Sesay.
In response, Mr. Sesay said that “No. Not at all. He did not contact Mr. Taylor concerning this incident.”
According to Mr. Sesay, claims that AFRC leader Mr. Koroma sent a delegation led by former Chairman of the RUF War Council SYB Rogers to meet with Mr. Taylor in Liberia are false. He said that such an issue was never discussed in Liberia and that Mr. Rogers never travelled to Liberia during the AFRC’s reign in Sierra Leone from 1997 to 1998.
“I never heard of such a discussion in a council meeting and throughout the AFRC, Pa Rogers never went to Monrovia. I knew of Pa Rogers taking a delegation to Abidjan but he never went to Monrovia,”Mr. Sesay told the court.
Mr. Sesay further refutted claims that AFRC leader Mr. Koroma sent a delegation to Liberia, led by RUF commander Mike Lamin to obtain arms and ammunition. A previous prosecution witness testified that since the AFRC did not have money, they had given diamonds to Mr. Lamin to deliver to Mr. Taylor in exchange for the arms and ammunition.
“During the AFRC, Mike Lamin did not go to Monrovia. Johnny Paul did not send Mike Lamin to Monrovia,” Mr. Sesay said.
When asked whether he recalled “any occassion when Mike Lamin took diamonds to Monrovia,” Mr. Sesay said “No.”
“That did not happen,” he said.
When asked again whether the Supreme Council ever put a delegation together to obtain arms and ammunition from Liberia, Mr. Sesay said “No, i never heard that in a council meeting.”
“I did not know of a delegation sent to Liberia by Johnny Paul, i did not know, i did not hear about it and infact it did not happen.” Mr. Sesay added.
Mr. Sesay also on Friday denied other prosecution cliams including that Mr. Taylor sent men to Sierra Leone to repair a heavy artillary weapon that was captured by RUF rebels from West African peacekeepers, and that Mr. Taylor had been in radio communication with RUF commanders in Sierra Leone. According to Mr. Sesay, he never saw Mr. Taylor’s name in the log books in which radio communications were recorded by the RUF.