A former Sierra Leonean rebel leader – released from his jail cell in Rwanda to testify on behalf of Charles Taylor — this week distanced the activities of his rebels from the former Liberian President. Mr. Taylor did not control the rebels’ actions, receive diamonds from them, nor provide assistance to them during Sierra Leone’s bloody civil conflict, he said.
Issa Hassan Sesay, who led the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel group for a short period from May 2000 to the end of the conflict in 2002, has himself been convicted of charges including war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the Sierra Leonean conflict and is serving a 52-year long jail sentence in a Rwandan jail. Prosecutors allege that Mr. Sesay had traveled regularly to Liberia to deliver diamonds to Mr. Taylor in exchange for arms and ammunition during the country’s brutal conflict, and that he had received direct orders from Mr. Taylor. Mr. Taylor has denied all allegations against him.
On Monday, Mr. Sesay told the court that Mr. Taylor was never in charge of the RUF rebel group and allegations that the RUF leaders took diamonds to the former Liberian president are false.
“Was Charles Taylor ever in charge of the RUF, Mr. Sesay?” Mr. Taylor’s lead defense counsel, Courtenay Griffiths, asked the former RUF leader on Monday.
“To my knowledge, no,” Mr. Sesay responded.
Previous prosecution witnesses have told the Special Court for Sierra Leone that Mr. Sesay was not the only rebel leader to bring diamonds to Mr. Taylor — others, including RUF founder and head, Foday Sankoh, and leading commander, Sam Bockarie, also traveled regularly to Liberia with diamonds for the former Liberian president. In his testimony on Monday, Mr. Sesay denied taking diamonds to Mr. Taylor, and said neither Mr. Sankoh nor Mr. Bockarie told him about taking diamonds to Mr. Taylor either.
“Did you ever give diamonds to Charles Taylor, Mr. Sesay?” Mr. Griffiths asked the witness.
“Me, I never one day gave diamonds to Mr. Taylor,” Mr. Sesay responded.
“To your knowledge, did Foday Sankoh ever give diamonds to Mr. Taylor?” Mr. Griffiths asked again.
“Foday Sankoh never told me that,” Mr. Sesay said.
Asked whether Mr. Bockarie ever gave diamonds to Mr. Taylor, Mr. Sesay responded: “Sam Bockarie never told me that.”
Mr. Sesay also spoke extensively about the training of RUF fighters at Camp Naama in Liberia and how the rebel group conducted itself during the civil conflict in Sierra Leone. Speaking about the RUF’s plans to invade Sierra Leone in 1991, the witness told the court that Mr. Taylor never played any role in the formation of the RUF.
He did, however, admit that the RUF committed crimes against Sierra Leonean civilians, including rape, murder, looting, forced labor and recruitment and use of children for combat purposes – crimes for which prosecutors say that Mr. Taylor bears responsibility (and which Mr. Taylor denies).
Contrary to prosecution allegations that it was Mr. Taylor who appointed him as interim leader of the RUF, Mr. Sesay told the court that he was appointed by the West African leaders during a meeting in Liberia. His appointment was not made by Mr. Taylor alone, he told the court.
On Tuesday, Mr. Sesay continued to distance Mr. Taylor from wrongdoing during the conflict in Sierra Leone, pointing instead to the United Nations and other Liberian rebel groups who did more to further the rebel cause through weapons supplies and other assistance than the former Liberian president ever did.
Mr. Sesay on Tuesday testified to an arms trade between the RUF and United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO), a rival rebel faction which fought against Mr. Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) rebel group. In 1997, Mr. Sankoh had allegedly given Mr. Bockarie, USD 7000 to buy ammunition from ULIMO forces as the group had come under fire from a government-aligned militia group, the Kamajors. Mr. Sankoh was arrested and imprisoned not long after handing over the money.
Mr. Taylor’s lead counsel, Mr. Griffiths, then read aloud sections of the “salute report” – a report prepared by Mr. Bockarie, already highlighted during the trial, that described RUF activities while Mr. Sankoh was in jail.
“Upon your departure, I initiated contact with ULIMO as per your instructions. We re-commenced a mutually beneficial relationship…I used the $7000 you gave me to purchase materials from ULIMO,” Mr, Griffiths read to the court, promoting a reaction from Mr. Sesay.
“This is the $7000 that I was talking to you about when I was explaining to the court that Mr. Sankoh gave to Sam Bockarie to purchase materials from ULIMO,” Mr. Sesay said.
Mr. Sesay explained that the arms trade between RUF and ULIMO continued from late December 1996 up to sometime in 1998 after the removal from power of the military junta which had overthrown the Sierra Leonean government in 1997.
Mr. Sesay said that apart from using the money left by Mr. Sankoh to make payment to ULIMO, RUF also sold produce harvested by civilians from farms. The money made from produce sales was used to pay for more ammunition. At the time, disarmament had not yet been completed in Liberia, he said. ULIMO fighters and their commanders came with arms and ammunition on a regular basis, and other items were also used to make payment to them.
“They’ll ask for money, generators, tape recorders…it came to a time, even if you gave them anything, they’ll take it if you don’t have money. It became very rampant,” he said.
In response to a question as to whether they received any arms and ammunition from Taylor at this time, Mr. Sesay said “No. At this time we did not even have any contact with Charles Taylor.”
“It was not possible [to contact Taylor]. At this time ULIMO was controlling from Foya right up to Bomi. It was not possible to get any contact with Charles Taylor or the NPFL,” he added.
When asked whether they had any radio communication with Mr. Taylor, he said “No. We hadn’t any radio contact with Mr. Taylor.”
Mr. Sesay also told the court that Mr. Sankoh had said he had given $50,000 to another RUF commander called Kposowa to purchase arms and ammunition from West African peacekeepers based in Liberia.
“When Mr. Sankoh came, he told me that he had given money to Kposowa to buy ammunition…” Mr. Sesay said.
Mr. Sesay also denied allegations that Mr. Sankoh had given instructions to Mr. Bockarie, to take orders from Mr. Taylor when Mr. Sankoh was arrested and imprisoned in 1997.
He also denied that Mr. Taylor ordered a merger between the RUF and disgruntled Sierra Leonean soldiers who had overthrown the country’s elected government and formed the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). Mr. Sesay, who was one of the RUF leaders at that time, on Tuesday told the court that such instructions did not come from Mr. Taylor, but from Mr. Sankoh while he was incarcerated in Nigeria.
As Mr. Sesay continued his testimony on Wednesday, he took pains to distance Mr. Taylor from a shipment of weapons that prosecutors say was bought with the same batch of diamonds as those he allegedly gave to supermodel Naomi Campbell after a star-studded dinner in South Africa in 1997. Mr. Sesay rather tied Libyan leader Muamarr Ghadaffi, Mr. Sankoh, Commander in Chief (CIC) of the Burkinabe Army, General Diendere, and AFRC leader, Johnny Paul Koroma, to the flight full of arms and ammunition which landed in northern Sierra Leone in late 1997.
Prosecutors have alleged that RUF/AFRC fighters gave Mr. Taylor rough diamonds for sale and to use the proceeds to purchase arms and ammunition for them during his 1997 trip to South Africa. Prosecutors say that some of those diamonds were given to supermodel Ms. Campbell for whom a subpoena has been issued to testify in The Hague in three weeks’ time, on July 29. On Wednesday, one of the men at the forefront of RUF activities in Sierra Leone said that prosecution allegations are false.
“It was Mr. Sankoh who paid for the arms and ammunition, it was Johnny Paul Koroma who paid for its transportation,” Mr. Sesay told the court on Wednesday.
“Was it not Charles Taylor who paid for them with diamonds he had taken to South Africa?” Mr. Griffiths, asked Mr. Sesay.
“No. It was Mr. Sankoh who paid for them. At that time, Mr. Sankoh and Mr. Taylor did not even have any contact,” Mr. Sesay responded.
Mr. Sesay described a letter sent from Mr. Sankoh – who was in jail in Nigeria at the time — to Mr. Koroma and Mr. Bockarie. The letter, delivered by another RUF commander, Gibril Massaquoi, informed the two men that Mr. Ghadaffi had given Mr. Sankoh USD 2,000,000 with which he had bought weaponry. These arms and ammunition were to be collected from Burkinabe CIC General Diendere and transported to Sierra Leone for use by the AFRC and RUF. Mr. Sankoh asked Mr. Koroma to provide money for a chartered flight to take the materials to Sierra Leone. These materials, Mr. Sesay told the court, were the ones that were dropped off at an airstrip in northern Sierra Leone in late 1997.
Speaking about Mr. Sankoh, Mr. Sesay told the court that “he had travelled to Libya and had got some money from the Libyan leader and that is the money he used to buy the arms and ammunition.”
“So he sent Gibril Massaquoi to meet General Diendere and Ibrahim Bah to make arrangements for the arms and ammunition to be taken to Sierra Leone,” Mr. Sesay told the court.
“Mr. Sankoh told Johnny Paul to provide money to charter a flight for the arms and ammunition to be taken to Sierra Leone,” he continued.
He said that “RUF agent,” Ibrahim Bah, was invited to Sierra Leone and AFRC leader Mr. Koroma gave him USD 90,000 to pay for a chartered flight to transport the arms and ammunition from Burkina Faso to Sierra Leone. The said money was taken from the Bank of Sierra Leone, Mr. Sesay told the court.
Mr. Griffiths asked Mr. Sesay how he came to know all these details.
“Well, I took part in this. Even Gibril Massaquoi told me about the letters that he brought, Sam Bockarie told me. I was a senior commander and so was involved in what was going on,” Mr. Sesay said.
“I was part of the team that went to receive the shipment,” he added.
Asked by Presiding Judge of the Trial Chamber, Justice Julia Sebutinde, whether it is his testimony that “the funds that bought these arms and ammunition came from the Libyan leaded Muamarr Ghadaffi,” Mr. Sesay said “yes, that was my understanding.”
“Mr. Sankoh bought these arms and ammunition from General Diendere and he was able to keep them because he was the head of the army in Burkina Faso. If it were not for Mr. Sankoh’s arrest, they would have come before then because Mr. Sankoh had given instructions to Peter Vandy to prepare an airstrip in Buedu,” Mr. Sesay explained.
When asked whether it was possible for the flight carrying the arms and ammunition to have passed through Liberia before heading to Sierra Leone, Mr. Sesay said: “No. It would not have been possible because at that time, ECOMOG [West African peacekeepers] were based in Liberia.”
On Thursday, Mr. Sesay told the court that another rebel group supplied the ammunition used to attack the diamond-rich town of Kono for “Operation Fita Fata” – not Mr. Taylor, as prosecutors have alleged. ULIMO rebels sold ammunition to an RUF member, named Kennedy, Mr Sesay said. The ammunition was buried before it was eventually handed over to Mr. Bockarie, who passed on some of it to his colleague, Superman, to launch the attack on Kono, according to Mr. Sesay.
“The ammunition that Bockarie gave to Superman for Fiti Fata – where did they come from?” asked Griffiths.
“It was the ammunition that Kennedy bought from ULIMO that had been buried in the ground,” Mr. Sesay told the court.
“Did the ammunition for the Fiti Fata operation come from Charles Taylor?” Mr. Griffiths asked again.
“No, it did not come from Charles Taylor,” Mr. Sesay responded.
Mr. Sesay explained that Kennedy had established a base in Voinjama–the base of the ULIMO fighters in Liberia– in order to effectively facilitate the arms and ammunition trade with ULIMO. Mr. Sesay said he personally visited Kennedy in Voinjama where he saw the ammunition that had been dug out from the ground and put in rice bags.
“I met Kennedy in Voinjama – I saw the ammunition in his room, he said he had bought them from ULIMO…they were in bags…Kennedy told me that these are the ammunition that I have bought, but they were a bit messy,” Mr. Sesay said.
He said that the bags of ammunition were brought to RUF headquarters in Buedu, in eastern Sierra Leone, and they were cleaned with gasoline before being handed to Superman for the “Fiti Fata Operation.”
Mr. Griffiths read portions of the RUF “salute report” that was presented by Mr. Bockarie to RUF leader Mr. Sankoh after his release from prison in Nigeria in 1999. In the report, Mr. Bockarie told Mr. Sankoh that “I renewed my contacts with ULIMO and obtained ammunition from them. It was out of these materials that I gave Superman to attack Kono.”
“Did Charles Taylor plan and order the Fiti Fata mission?” Mr. Griffiths asked again.
“No. It was not Mr. Taylor because as far as I know, Bockarie was not in contact with Mr. Taylor,” Mr. Sesay responded.
Also in his testimony on Thursday, Mr. Sesay dismissed allegations that it was Mr. Taylor who sent traditional herbalists to Buedu to perform ceremonies on RUF fighters to protect them from bullets during “Operation Fiti Fata.” In 2008, several prosecution witness — including Samuel Kargbo and Alice Pyne — testified that Mr. Taylor sent these traditional herbalists to perform these ceremonies in Buedu and Kono as part of preparations to attack the diamond-rich town. While Mr. Kargbo testified that he underwent the ceremony in Buedu, Ms. Pyne said that she was present in Buedu when the herbalists arrived, and that she was part of those who underwent the ceremony in Kono. On Thursday, Mr. Sesay told the court that the herbalists were from Lofa County, where ULIMO forces were based, and their services were facilitated by an ex-ULIMO fighter called Titus.
“The medicine men came from Lofa County,” Mr. Sesay said.
“It was one of the ex-ULIMO fighters called Titus, he was a Lorma guy. Titus was a friend of Bockarie and he was a brother to one of our vanguards, Major Moiba. So it was Bockarie who made this request to Major Moiba to get the men who were protecting the ULIMO fighters,” Mr. Sesay said. “They called Titus and Bockarie gave him some money and he came with the people, two men and one woman.”
“They came and treated people in Buedu and then went to Kono and treated people there. They were Lorma people based in Voinjama,” Mr. Sesay said.
On Friday, Mr. Sesay told the court that RUF commander Mr. Bockarie, bought arms and ammunition from Mr. Taylor’s top security personnel, including Benjamin Yeatean — a close associate of Mr. Taylor and the former Director of the country’s Special Security Services (SSS). But this did not mean Mr. Taylor knew about it, according to Mr. Sesay.
“Did Bockarie say whether or not these purchases were with the knowledge and permission of Charles Taylor?” Mr. Griffiths, asked Mr. Sesay on Friday morning.
“The answer is no. Bockarie did not tell me that Mr. Taylor knew about the purchase of those ammunition,” Mr. Sesay responded.
Mr. Taylor has long maintained that he did not have arms and ammunition for his own military and so it was not possible for him to have supplied them to the RUF. Prosecutors maintain that the former Liberia president and his associates, including Mr. Yeaten, provided support to the rebel forces in Sierra Leone through the supply of arms and ammunition in return for diamonds.
Mr. Sesay’s testimony continues on Monday.