Sierra Leone
Trial of a 'War Hero'

by Lansana Gberie; March 10, 2006
The UN-Sierra Leone Special Court began work nearly four years ago, and it has already spent more than $80 million dollars. This is mostly as salary for its mainly expatriate staff, amounting to $16 million a year - more than that for the entire Sierra Leonean civil service. In its first fully operational year, the Court had a budget of $34 million, in its second $29.9 million, and $25.5 million for its third year. Set up in 2002 as a result of agreement between the Sierra Leone government and the UN, the Court is mandated to prosecute those who "bear the greatest responsibility" for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international law which took place in Sierra Leone at the height of the war years, 1996 to 2002. Its supporters claimed that by doing so the court will leave a 'legacy' of fundamental respect for the rule of law, and ensure 'closure' (notice the vogue word) after years of destructive warfare. Four years into its ponderous work, however, the Court has clearly satisfied nobody's sense of justice, reconciled no one to the brutal past, and left everyone plainly angry or bemused.

This writer visited the Court several times in January and February. Hinga Norman, a former Sierra Leone government minister and the leader of the pro-government Civil Defence Force (CDF), was testifying as the first accused. Norman was dramatically arrested in his office in 2003, handcuffed and at first flown to a remote corner of the country, where he was detained in a former holding facility for enslaved Africans being shipped to the Americas. He had no contact with his family and lawyers, and it was only after protest from them that Norman was later brought back to Freetown to be detained with the others. Norman is generally regarded as hero for his role in resisting the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and rogue government soldiers, whose campaigns led to the near-total destruction of Sierra Leone.

A company of troops from Mongolia guards the Court's heavily fortified compound, and the Court's main building, finished about two years ago at the cost of some $3.5 million dollars, is hidden from public view by high, barbed-wired walls. Inside the Court's compound are mainly prefabricated little buildings, helping to make the Court's main building - with its moderately baroque looks, oval-shaped inside, and an almost post-modern ambience - magnificent and imposing. A glass wall, probably bullet-proof, separates the audience from the room where the robed judges writing furiously in big books, and the lawyers (both prosecutors and defence, also in their colourful robes), and accused and witnesses, sit. Armed soldiers stand in strategic locations around the court. Visiting the Court for the first time, the British scholar Tim Kelsal, who has insightfully written about the so-called transitional justice system in Sierra Leone, thought that it "reminded of the 18th century spectacle of robed English judges accompanied by military squads."

So far thirteen persons have been indicted by the Court, but two - the RUF leader Foday Sankoh and his former commander Sam Bockarie - are dead; another, a military leader named Johnny Paul Koroma, has simply disappeared; and a fourth, former Liberian President Charles Taylor, is in protected exile in Nigeria. Nine persons, three of them CDF leaders, three RUF officials, and three members of Koroma's military junta, are in the detention of Court. All are charged with - with only slight variation in emphasis - murder, rape, sexual enslavement, looting and arson, acts of terror and extermination, and attacks on UN soldiers.

Norman began testifying in January. He walked with a slight limp (the result of infections he had contracted while in detention, he told this writer) but otherwise looked healthy and even robust. He recounted the setting up of the CDF in Guinea in 1997 by the exiled President Tejan Kabbah (after his overthrow by Koroma). The CDF was formed as a coalition of various civil militia groups which had emerged during the war as a result of the corruption and ineffectiveness of the national army. They fought to protect their villages and homes from the ravages of the RUF and rogue government soldiers. Norman acted as the kind of spiritual leader of the largely inchoate group. As a result of his background as a British-trained soldier (he served in the Congo as a UN peacekeeper in the early 1960s), he was chosen to coordinate the operations of the CDF with the West African intervention force Ecomog during their assault against Johnny Paul Koroma's junta, in 1997-1998. The role exposed him to great danger, but he was ultimately successful: the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) junta, which had overthrown Kabbah in 1997, was unseated in February 1998, and Kabbah was reinstated. Later, following the resurgence of rebel activities, Norman once again coordinated CDF activities with those of Ecomog and the British forces to beat back the rebels, and played a significant role in the subsequent disarmament process. This testimony was subsequently supported by those of Peter Penfold (a former British High Commissioner in Sierra Leone), Albert Joe Demby (a former Vice President of Sierra Leone) and General David Richards (a British army officer who also worked with Norman during the period), but the main witness, President Kabbah, was unavailable.

The prosecution, led by British lawyer Desmond del Silva, readily conceded Norman's courage and role in bringing back democracy to Sierra Leone. But the issue, they insisted, is that in the process he committed "crimes against humanity." The prosecutors charge Norman, and the two other CDF officials, Alieu Kondewa and Moinina Fofana, of using "cultish rituals" to conscript civilians into the CDF, and of scheming to "take a traditional belief system and [manipulating] it (sic) to their own ends." The charges, also including cannibalism, states that Norman hatched "a common plan" to use "illegal and forbidden means, to defeat the RUF and AFRC forces." Norman, the prosecution claim, was central in the "joint criminal enterprise" (the Court's perversely reductive definition of the war).

In a fascinating paper on the Special Court, Tim Kelsal has drawn attention to the Court's frantic attempts to produce "historical truths that are narrowly confined to forensic 'facts'." In this way, 'facts' are cast "in a particular light, de-politicizing certain modes of action by calling them criminal, motivated, where motivations are spoken of, by pure greed, and providing a point of leverage for penal apparatus." In this way, leaders of groups which had engaged in warfare are separated "from the rest of the population, and in the view of international jurists, sends a powerful message about impunity to other aspiring leaders." The Court, Kelsal writes, is part of the mechanism for "global governance" which the West wants to impose worldwide. In its proceedings, the Court attempts "a form of political manipulation, in which the criminal nature of erstwhile political acts is drip-fed into the minds of the general population," leaving people hostage to the Court's owned skewed narrative of what has happened in their own country.

The charges against Norman were first read out by the former Chief Prosecutor David Crane, previously an American army lawyer (and now a professor of law at Syracuse University), in 2004. Crane, who I met, was an energetic and passionate man; but this passion sometimes allowed him prodigies of convolution and rhetorical excess. In charging three former RUF members, Crane declared that their motive in waging war in Sierra Leone was "power, riches, and control in furtherance of a joint criminal enterprise that extended from West Africa north into the Mediterranean Region, Europe, and the Middle East." Crane staunchly rejected any "injection of politics" into the trials (meaning mentioning the political context in which groups acted), and in an interview with Kelsal, he provided a distinction between 'politics' and 'crime' in terms which he doubtless considered profound, not to say literate, but which only exposed the confusion surrounding the whole Special Court enterprise: "Sometimes they [politics and crime] merge...And there are political crimes, such as corruption is a political crime...but these are international crimes and crimes against humanity...there's a real issue of injecting politics into a court of law. That's why you have balances of power, not balance of power...the blind, equal, and I'm talking in the pure sense now."

This fetish of the law as blind and equal is all very well, but in the case of the Special Court, the trial of Norman has now stalled principally because the main witness, the President of Sierra Leone, has still not consented to appear for testimony, and the Court has not issued any statement about that yet.

Norman and the eight other accused persons have been in the Court's detention since 2003, and the trials are unlikely to be concluded soon. Still, just after he left the Court to take up his appointment at Syracuse University, Crane wrote an email to his friends and supporters thanking them - using a phrase that evoked the many tropes of barbarism and darkness which suffused his indictment of the CDF leaders - for helping him bring "the rule of law to West Africa."