As he took the witness stand for a second week, a Sierra Leonean rebel leader today testified that the Ivory Coast government gave his rebel group a base to stay for far longer than former Liberian president, Charles Taylor – again distancing the former Liberian president from charges that he supported and controlled the neighboring rebels during the brutal 11-year conflict in Sierra Leone.
Issa Hassan Sesay, former interim leader of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel group, currently serving a 52 year jail sentence in a Rwandan jail, has said that from 1996 to around 2000, the Ivorian government provided housing facilities where RUF leader Foday Sankoh was based together with his special adviser David Kallon and an RUF radio operator Memunatu Deen.
Prosecutors have long maintained that Mr. Taylor supported and controlled the RUF rebels during the conflict in Sierra Leone, including the provision of a guesthouse in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, sometime in the late 1990s. The guesthouse, according to prosecutors, served as a residence for RUF commanders when they brought diamonds to Liberia for Mr. Taylor to exchange for arms and ammunition. Mr. Taylor himself has admitted that sometime in the late 1990s, he indeed provided a guesthouse for the RUF in Monrovia — but it was solely to facilitate meetings geared towards bringing the conflict in Sierra Leone to an end. Today, Mr. Sesay testified that another government – the Ivorian one – was far more supportive to his rebel group than Mr. Taylor was, at least in terms of places for his rebel forces to stay.
“Mr. Sesay, what was the distinction between the assistance provided by the Government of Ivory Coast to the RUF and the assistance provided by the Government of Liberia?” Mr. Taylor’s lead defense lawyer, Courtenay Griffiths, asked Mr. Sesay.
“Well, the Ivorian government provided housing for the RUF from 1996, so they provided accommodation for a longer period that the Liberian government,” Mr. Sesay responded.
He said that the RUF maintained the residence in Ivory Coast until the year 2000.
When asked about which RUF officials occupied the house in Ivory Coast, Mr. Sesay explained that “it was Mr. Sankoh who was there, but when they arrested Mr. Sankoh in Nigeria, his adviser Pa Kallon was there.
“When they both [Sankoh and Kallon] returned to Sierra Leone in 1999, Mr. Sankoh’s wife Josephine Tengbeh was there up to 2000 with some wounded soldiers,” Mr. Sesay said.
Was there a radio operator based at those premises from 1996 to 2000?” Mr. Griffiths asked Mr. Sesay.
“It did not go up to 2000 — but up to 1998 an operator was there and it was that operator who left and moved to Liberia,” Mr. Sesay said. “She was Memunatu Deen.”
He added that Ms. Deen returned to Sierra Leone at some point in 1998, but that during the signing of the peace agreement between the Sierra Leonean government and the RUF in Togo in 1999, she was again deployed at the guesthouse in Abidjan. She was subsequently relocated to the RUF guesthouse in Monrovia, Mr. Sesay said.
As prosecutors have alleged that Mr. Taylor served as the main source of support for the RUF, defense lawyers now seek to establish that the RUF received assistance from several other sources, including foreign governments and West African peacekeepers. In Mr. Sesay’s testimony, he has pointed out that the RUF did not receive assistance from Mr. Taylor but rather from officials in Burkina Faso who supplied them with arms and ammunition, and Ivory Coast where he says that housing was provided to the RUF leadership.
Mr. Sesay also testified about diamonds that were given to him in 1998 and which went missing while he was in Liberia. According to prosecutors, Mr. Sesay had taken these diamonds to Mr. Taylor in Liberia — an account which Mr. Sesay has denied. The former RUF leader has said that he was on transit in Liberia on his way to Burkina Faso where the diamonds were to be used to purchase arms and ammunition. He explained today that RUF commander, Sam Bockarie, instructed Ms. Deen to pick up Mr. Sesay in Sierra Leone and take him to Liberia to meet RUF associate, Ibrahim Bah. Mr. Bah was to eventually take Mr. Sesay to Burkina Faso where the diamonds were to be delivered and arms and ammunition collected, Mr. Sesay said today. (Prosecutors allege that Mr. Bah was a close associate of Mr. Taylor).
“She [Memunatu Deen] was instructed by Bockarie to come to Kailahun. The purpose for her to come when Bockarie called her was to take me to meet Ibrahim Bah. Ibrahim Bah was to meet us in Monrovia so that we can go to Burkina Faso,” Mr. Sesay.
The diamonds eventually went missing in Monrovia and were never given to Mr. Bah, Mr. Sesay said.
Mr. Sesay refuted suggestions that the diamonds were to be taken to Mr. Taylor, saying that if that were to be the case, he would not have taken several days carrying the diamonds in Monrovia when they eventually went missing.
“If the diamonds were to be given to Mr. Taylor, then they wouldn’t have been missing from me because I was in Monrovia for six days,” Mr. Sesay said.
Mr. Sesay’s testimony continues on Tuesday.