As his cross-examination moved into a second week, Charles Taylor’s 19th defense witness, Issa Hassan Sesay, this week distanced the former Liberian president from the creation of the rebel group that waged a bloody civil war in Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002. Mr. Sesay also denied allegations that it was Mr. Taylor who promoted a senior rebel commander in Sierra Leone to the rank of General.
Prosecutors have maintained that the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) was created with substantial support from Mr. Taylor. In addition, prosecutors allege the former president, while he served as leader of his own rebel group, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), helped train RUF fighters in Sierra Leone and equipped them to invade Sierra Leone in March 1991. Prosecutors further accuse Mr. Taylor of meeting with RUF leader Foday Sankoh in Libya, and the two men planned the invasion of Liberia and Sierra Leone respectively. Mr. Taylor has denied these allegations. On Monday, Mr. Sesay distanced Mr. Taylor from the creation of the RUF, insisting instead that the rebel group was created by its leader Foday Sankoh.
“You know that the RUF was created with the acquiescence and support of Charles Taylor,” prosecution counsel Nicholas Koumjian stated to Mr. Sesay on Monday.
“Well, I cannot explain because I was not there when Mr. Sankoh and Mr. Taylor discussed,” Mr. Sesay responded.
“Most of the RUF fighters I knew at the base [camp where RUF fighters were trained], it was Pa Kallon [Senior adviser to Mr. Sankoh] who took them to the base,” he added.
Mr. Koumjian on Monday read several testimonies from previous witnesses before the Special Court for Sierra Leone in Freetown that explained how the RUF recruited fighters in Liberia. According to Mr. Koumjian, RUF fighters were recruited from among people who had been arrested by NPFL rebels in Liberia.
One of the testimonies read in court on Monday was that of Morris Kallon, a former RUF commander who, like Mr. Sesay, has been convicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone judges in Freetown for his role in the Sierra Leonean conflict and is presently serving a 40 year jail sentence in Rwanda. Mr. Kallon explained in his testimony that RUF leaders removed him from the custody of NPFL fighters and took him to the training base at Camp Naama in Liberia. Prosecutors say that such a recruitment drive and training by the RUF inside NPFL territory could not have happened without Mr. Taylor’s knowledge.
Mr. Taylor has denied knowledge of any such activities. When asked about these allegations, Mr. Sesay also told the court that he had no idea that the RUF had recruited fighters from NPFL controlled areas and that Mr. Taylor did not provide any support to the RUF while they underwent training at Camp Naama.
“It was obvious to you that the RUF was created and supported by Charles Taylor, but you just don’t want to say that because you are here to protect Charles Taylor,” Mr. Koumjian told Mr. Sesay.
“No. That is not true. It was Mr. Sankoh who created the RUF. It was Mr. Sankoh who trained the RUF, and he used to tell us that he was supported by his brother Pa Kallon and Pa Kallon told us the same thing at Pendembu,” Mr. Sesay said.
Mr. Sesay, you are clever, it’s clear to you that none of this could have been done without the consent of Charles Taylor,” Mr. Koumjian put to Mr. Sesay again.
In response, Mr. Sesay said, “Well, if you assess it that way, but I have to believe what Mr. Sankoh told me…but Mr. Sankoh did not tell me that he had links with Mr. Taylor…according to him, he was Mr. Taylor’s friend and he was responsible for his own revolution.”
Mr. Sesay’s account of how and where Mr. Taylor and Mr. Sankoh met, however, contradicted what Mr. Taylor told the court in his testimony in 2009. According to Mr. Taylor, he never met Mr. Sankoh in Libya. Mr. Taylor explained in his testimony that when United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO) rebels started attacking the NPFL with support from the government of Sierra Leone, he asked to meet the leader of the RUF because he realized the need to collaborate with the RUF to curtail attacks from ULIMO and the Sierra Leone government. Mr. Taylor said that was the first time he met Mr. Sankoh. On Monday, Mr. Sesay gave a different story.
When asked to tell the court what Mr. Sankoh told him about how he met Mr. Taylor, Mr. Sesay said, “According to Mr. Sankoh, he said he met Mr. Taylor in Libya and later in Liberia because Mr. Sankoh and his men were also training in Libya.”
Mr. Sesay, however, added, “Mr. Sankoh told us that he was not the leader in Libya, it was Allie Kabbah who was the leader.”
Before the RUF invasion of Sierra Leone in 1991, Mr. Sankoh made a satellite phone call to the BBC where he announced that the RUF will invade Sierra Leone in 90 days if the country’s then leader, Joseph Saidu Momoh, did not step down as president. While Mr. Sesay admitted that Mr. Sankoh did not have a satellite phone at this time, he said he could not tell whether the RUF leader had used the satellite phone that Mr. Taylor was using at that time to communicate with the international media.
When asked whether “Foday Sankoh’s threat, the 90 day ultimatum, was made on Charles Taylor’s satellite phone,” Mr. Sesay said, “I don’t know that.”
Mr. Sesay agreed that the RUF invasion in Sierra Leone was moved to an earlier date in March 1991 because of border clashes that took place between NPFL fighters and Sierra Leone Army (SLA) forces in Bomaru, eastern Sierra Leone. When these clashes between the NPFL and the SLA occurred, the RUF used that opportunity to immediately invade Sierra Leone, Mr. Sesay said. He explained that Mr. Sankoh and other NPFL commanders, including Anthony Menkunagbe and Oliver Varney, brought four trucks that were used to transport RUF fighters from Camp Naama to the Sierra Leone-Liberian border where they entered Bomaru.
On Tuesday, Mr. Koumjian questioned Mr. Sesay about the friendship between Mr. Taylor and RUF leader Foday Sankoh – a friendship prosecutors say predates the invasion of Sierra Leone in March 1991.
Prosecutors say that the two men became friends while they trained their respective fighters in Libya in the late 1980s and that the basis of such friendship was to provide mutual assistance to each other in their respective invasions of Liberia and Sierra Leone. When he testified as a witness in his own defense, Mr. Taylor said that he did not know Mr. Sankoh prior to the RUF’s invasion of Sierra Leone in 1991. In his testimony on Monday, Mr. Sesay told the court that while they underwent training at Camp Naama in Liberia in 1990, Mr. Sankoh informed them that he was already friends with Mr. Taylor. On Tuesday, Prosecutors decided to dig further.
Mr. Koumjian put to Mr. Sesay that in a previous BBC interview, Mr. Taylor had announced, “It is known by everyone that I have been friendly with Foday Sankoh for many years before the revolution.”
During his testimony, Mr. Taylor responded to the statement above by saying, “I said it is known by everyone that I knew Foday Sankoh before the revolution when in fact I did not.”
“Was it known by all of you at Naama that Foday Sankoh was friendly with Charles Taylor or Charles Taylor was friendly with Foday Sankoh many years before the revolution?” Mr. Koumjian asked Mr. Sesay.
In response, Mr. Sesay said, “I cannot say what was happening before the revolution, but Mr. Sankoh told us at Naama that he was friends with Mr. Taylor…[He said so] at Naama and also in Sierra Leone.”
Prosecutors are seeking to establish that the friendship between Mr. Taylor and Mr. Sankoh before the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone saw the commencement of a joint criminal enterprise between the two men, and the purpose of such enterprise was to capture and control political power in their respective countries. In the pursuit of this enterprise in Sierra Leone, prosecutors allege that the RUF committed heinous crimes in Sierra Leone, crimes they say that Mr. Taylor bears the greatest responsibility for. Mr. Taylor has denied the allegations against him.
On Wednesday, Mr. Koumjian questioned Mr. Sesay about allegations that Mr. Taylor promoted RUF commander Sam Bockarie to the rank of Two Star General in late 1998, a time when the Sierra Leonean rebels were actively pursuing the conflict in Sierra Leone. Mr. Sesay insisted that it was not Mr. Taylor who issued the promotion to the Sierra Leonean rebel commander.
Prosecutors allege that when RUF leader Mr. Sankoh was incarcerated by the government of Sierra Leone, Mr. Taylor had full control over the RUF and that the rebel group’s commanders took all orders from the former Liberian president. According to several prosecution witnesses, sometime in 1998, RUF commander Mr. Bockarie returned from Liberia and informed them that Mr. Taylor had promoted him to the rank of General in the RUF. Prosecutors say this points at Mr. Taylor’s control over the Sierra Leonean rebel group.
Mr. Taylor has dismissed these allegations as false. Mr. Sesay has told the court that Mr. Bockarie was promoted by Johnny Paul Koroma, then former leader of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), a group of Sierra Leonean soldiers who overthrew the elected government of Sierra Leone in 1997 and teamed up with the RUF to establish a government. The joint AFRC/RUF junta regime was forcefully removed from power by Economic Community of West African States (ECOMOG) peacekeepers in 1998.
On Wednesday, Mr. Koumjian in cross-examining Mr. Sesay showed him individual pictures of Mr. Bockarie, Mr. Taylor’s former vice president Moses Blah, and the former Director of Special Security Services Benjamin Yeaten who, according to Mr. Koumjian, all displayed their stars indicating their military ranks in the same fashion. In the picture, all three persons were wearing “red berets” with the stars indicating their positions as Generals on the front of their berets.
“The red berets are identical that Sam Bockarie, Benjamin Yeaten, and Moses Blah are wearing, correct?” Mr. Koumjian asked Mr. Sesay.
“Yes, I see them, but we too had red berets.” Mr. Sesay responded.
When the prosecution noted that “[i]t’s the same uniform, the same type of khaki uniform that Sam Bockarie has with the Liberians,” Mr. Sesay explained that “this is a US camouflage that the Nigerians used to wear, we used to capture them.”
“When we joined the AFRC, [Corporal] Gborie used to supply those red berets to the RUF. Even when we fought ECOMOG, we used to capture these camouflage, we captured lots of red berets,” he added.
Mr. Koumjian pointed out that the difference between the Sierra Leone Army (SLA) and Mr. Taylor’s forces was that in Sierra Leone, the soldiers displayed their stars on their military uniforms while Mr. Taylor’s forces displayed theirs on their berets, as done by Mr. Yeaten and Mr. Blah. Mr. Sesay agreed with Mr. Koumjian on this.
“It’s correct, isn’t it, that the Sierra Leone Army would not wear stars on the beret?” Mr. Koumjian asked again.
In response, Mr. Sesay said, “Yes, the Sierra Leone Army, they put their ranks on their uniform.”
“This is just further evidence that the promotion of Sam Bockarie was done by Mr. Taylor, not Johnny Paul Koroma,” Mr. Koumjian challenged Mr. Sesay.
“No,” Mr. Sesay said. “He was promoted by Johnny Paul. They can promote you and you’ll remove the star from the uniform and put it on your beret. That’s what Sam Bockarie did.”
On Thursday, Mr. Sesay made considerable effort to distance the RUF from the 1999 invasion of Freetown, an attack which saw the commission of heinous crimes including murder, rape, amputations of the arms and limbs of civilians, and the looting and destruction of civilian property. Mr. Sesay insisted that the invasion of Freetown was solely an operation undertaken by the AFRC soldiers.
“It was an AFRC operation, it was an independent operation that they carried out,” Mr. Sesay told the court in reference to the January 1999 invasion of Freetown.
Mr. Sesay explained that “they [AFRC] fought from Koinadugu [Northern Sierra Leone] right up to Freetown on their own.”
According to Mr. Sesay, the action of the democratic government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah to execute members of the Sierra Leone Army (SLA), who had been found guilty by a Court Martial for their involvement in the coup, was the main reason why the AFRC decided to attack Freetown.
“That is why they attacked Freetown, they said their colleagues had been killed,” Mr. Sesay told the court.
Prosecutors on the otherhand have insisted that the 1999 Freetown invasion was a joint operation undertaken by the AFRC and the RUF in pursuit of their joint criminal enterprise in Sierra Leone. Prosecutors hope that by proving the RUF’s involvement in the Freetown invasion, Mr. Taylor would be held liable because according to prosecutors, when Mr. Taylor allegedly provided arms and ammunition to the RUF to attack the diamond rich town of Kono in December 1998, the rebels used that operation and the same arms and ammunition to advance to the northern part of the country before they proceeded to Freetown in January 1999.
Mr. Sesay has denied these allegations, telling the court instead that the AFRC troops that attacked Freetown took off from Koinadugu under the leadership of Solomon Anthony James Musa (SAJ Musa) but that when SAJ Musa died before the troops entered Freetown, Alex Tamba Brima, aka Gullit, (also now convicted by the Special Court and serving a jail term in Rwanda) took over the leadership of the troops. It was at that time that he made contact with RUF commander Mr. Bockarie.
“According to [my radio] operator, it was Gullit’s name that was mentioned to Sam Bockarie’s operator. He said Gullit told Sam Bockarie that SAJ Musa was dead. Then Sam Bockarie told Gullit that they should wait for reinforcement to come so that they will attack Freetown,” Mr. Sesay explained.
Mr. Sesay added that Gullit did not wait for the reinforcement to arrive when he led his troops into Freetown.
When asked whether it was Mr. Bockarie who offered to send reinforcements to support Gullit’s troops, Mr. Sesay said, “That is what my operator told me…based on the instruction he gave Gullit to wait to get reinforcement for us to attack Freetown, but Gullit did not wait, he did not go ahead with what he was told.”
Mr. Sesay told the court that the RUF was not involved in the plan to attack Freetown because the AFRC’s SAJ Musa and the RUF’s Mr. Boackarie were not on speaking terms. When asked why Mr. Bockarie was “offering to send reinforcement to this renegade group,” Mr. Sesay said that “when Gullit told Bockarie that SAJ Musa was dead, since Gullit was his friend, Bockarie was ready to work with him.”
Mr. Sesay said that the RUF fighters who moved to reinforce the AFRC could not enter Freetown because ECOMOG forces stopped them at Waterloo outside Freetown.
“ECOMOG was in Hastings and Jui and so they [RUF} could not go to Freetown," Mr. Sesay said.
He agreed that their purpose was to enter Freetown.
Mr. Koumjian then played in court a January 1999 audio clip of a BBC interview by a Colonel FAT Sesay in which the Colonel told the interviewer that "we have again overthrown the SLPP [Sierra Leone People's Party]…the combined forces of the AFRC and the RUF forces.”
In response to this, Mr. Sesay said, “I knew that he was lying because at that time, the RUF were in Makeni.”
Mr. Sesay insisted, “I was not part of the planning, nor was I part of the execution of the attack on Freetown.”
When told that RUF’s Mr. Bockarie had “called his papay [Mr. Taylor]” to inform him that the rebel forces had entered Freetown, Mr. Sesay said, “I didn’t know about that.”