Tag Archives: Issa Sesay

Interview with director of War Don Don

War Don Don, a documentary that looks at debates surrounding the Special Court for Sierra Leone through the lens of the trial of former RUF leader Issa Sesay, will be on HBO Wednesday night (8:00 – 9:30 PM, EST).  I reviewed the film earlier this year here.

I recently interviewed the film’s director, Rebecca Richman Cohen.  Cohen, a lawyer, worked on the defense team for Alex Tamba Brima in the AFRC-accused case before making this film.

Below are excerpts from the interview.  At many points I paraphrase Cohen.

What is the biggest lesson future international war crimes tribunals should take from the Special Court?

The Special Court did some things quite well.  Its outreach was quite effective.  It was the first major tribunal to take place where the crimes took place.  These are both important things.  On a critical note, I believe that the scope of the indictment for the RUF-accused was far too broad, and that made it hard to defend.  Also, I believe there could have been a more nuanced approach to sentencing. But international criminal justice is still very young.  Figuring out how to do it best is important.


I’ve written a lot about outreach and the Charles Taylor trial.  It seems to me most Liberians and Sierra Leoneans are not following the Taylor trial.  Do you think they followed the Freetown-based Special Court trials?


Following the trial is not a measure of success per se.  Not many Sierra Leoneans followed the day-to-day proceedings of the trial.  But it’s not reasonable to expect that in the aftermath of war.  People are still struggling with poverty, working long hours.  While feelings about the Court were really mixed, people knew what it was.  They understood its mandate.  Attitudes about the Court depend on how you ask the question.  If you ask, “Does the RUF leadership deserve to be prosecuted?”  the answer in Sierra Leone would overwhelmingly be yes.  If you ask, “Would you rather have Sesay be prosecuted or use the money for food for your family?” you’ll get a very different answer.  And both are acceptable ways to ask the question.  Many Sierra Leoneans were happy that some of the RUF leadership was held accountable for their crimes.


Was Sesay’s trial unique from other Special Court trials?


In many ways no.  All trials were plagued by questions about payments to prosecution witnesses.  Sesay’s case was unique in that it raised interesting questions about sentencing–ways his role in bringing peace to Sierra Leone might have mitigated his sentence.  He’s serving the equivalent of a life sentence, given his age.  Sentencing was an opportunity for the court to take into account a more holistic idea of his crimes and the nature of crimes committed by his subordinates, but also some of the important things he did to end the war.

As an aside, here’s an excerpt on the issue of sentencing from the blog of William Schabas, a professor of human rights law and former member of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission:

Personally, I remain troubled by the sentences that were imposed by the judgment (and upheld on appeal), and I had the impression that Rebecca does too. Sesay really got nothing in mitigation, receiving several concurrent sentences of which the highest is 52 years. The reasoning is not adequately explained in the sentencing judgment, which was upheld on appeal. The judgment condemns him to 35 years [for] extermination, 40 years for murder, 45 years for rape and 50 years for recruitment of child soldiers. Does that make any sense? I would have thought extermination was worse than murder, given that it involves multiple murders, and that both are more important than recruiting child soldiers. Nothing in the reasons helps to understand this. One might have thought that this was because of particular brutality or horror in specific acts perpetrated by Sesay. But he is convicted, essentially, as a leader and not a direct perpetrator, so that cannot provide an explanation.

What has been most surprising to you about the reaction of audiences to the film?

Sierra Leonean audiences responded to the film differently than American audiences.  Sierra Leoneans frequently laughed through a lot of the film.  They laughed through parts that were ironic, and parts of testimony where they assumed witnesses were lying.  Sierra Leoneans were not persuaded by parts of the rhetoric that Americans might find more persuasive.  This seemed a very different but very human response.  I think the laughter made a lot of Westerners in the room uncomfortable.


On BBC the other night I heard former Liberian warlord and current presidential candidate Prince Johnson defending his war time history with political rhetoric, trying to shift away from the criminal language of the interviewer.  This was a common theme in the Special Court trials.  Of all the Special Court trials, which defendant do you think most succeeded in presenting their actions as political?


Whatever side you’re on, it’s impossible to justify crimes against civilians.  There’s not a political end that lets you justify crimes against civilians.  Any of the defendants would say there were political motivations behind what they did.  The question is: are they justifying the crimes – or their reasons for fighting. Combatants generally frame their actions politically.


Do you think the Special Court defendants, and Sesay specifically, got a fair trial?


Obviously it’s how you define fair.  This is not a film about a miscarriage of justice.  It’s a film about the nature of justice. I don’t think Sesay is an innocent man who was wrongly convicted for crimes for which he had nothing to do with.  But I do think there were problems with the prosecution’s case. It’s about how you define justice.

I was struck by a line by WayneI was struck by a line by Wayne Jordash, legal counsel for Issa Sesay: “You
can’t expect to [prosecute] just a few people and have an historical
narrative that is balanced.”  Can you elaborate on why a war crimes
trial might not be great at creating an historical narrative?
It’s not that they never do it well, but it is an expectation that is
really high to meet.  What courts do well is determine whether someone
is guilty.  Courts often make huge claims that are hard to live up to.
On BBC the other night I heard Prince Johnson defending his war time history with
political rhetoric, trying to shift away from the criminal language of the interviewer.  Of
all the Special Court trials, which defendant do you think most succeeded in
presenting their actions as political?  And why?
I don’t want to delve into this area, but the CDF trial was fascinating on that
level.  The court prosecuted Hinga Norman, and not President Kabbah.
But whatever side you’re on, it’s impossible to justify crimes
against civilians.  There’s not a political end that lets you justify crimes
against civilians.  Any of the defendants would say there were political
motivations behind what they did.  Combatants generally frame their
actions politically.
Do you think the judges found any of the “political” arguments persuasive?
Clearly judges did not find the defense cases persuasive.  They discarded it in a few pages. The issue of payment to prosecution witnesses was never adjudicated on a substantive level.  Judges dismissed it on a technicalities.
Do you think the Special Court defendants, and Sesay specifically, got a fair trial?
Obviously it’s how you define fair.  This is not a film about a miscarriage of justice.  It’s a film about justice and the flaws in the trial.  I don’t think Sesay is an innocent man who got convicted, but there were problems with the prosecution’s case, hopefully we can avoid repeating these errors.
What is the biggest lesson future international war crimes tribunals should take from the Special Court?
The Special Court did some things quite well.  It’s outreach was quite effective.  It was the first major tribunal to take place where the crimes took place.  These are both important things.  The RUF trial was far too broad, and that made it hard to defend.  International criminal justice is very young.  Figuring out how to do it best is important.
I’ve blogged a lot about outreach and the Charles Taylor trial.  It seems to me most Liberians and Sierra Leoneans are not following the Taylor trial.  Do you think they did follow the Freetown-based Special Court trials?
Following the trial is not a measure of success per se.  Not many Sierra Leoneans followed the day-to-day proceedings of the trial.  But it’s not reasonable to expect that in the aftermath of war.  People are still struggling with poverty, working long hours.  While feelings about the Court were really mixed, people knew what it was.  They understood its mandate.  Attitudes about the Court depend on how you ask the question.  If you ask, “Does the RUF leadership deserve to be prosecuted?”  The answer in Sierra Leone would overwhelmingly be yes.  If you ask, “Would you rather have Sesay be prosecuted or use the money for food for your family?” you’ll get a very different answer.  And both are acceptable ways to ask the question.  People are happy the RUF was held accountable for crimes.  The CDF trial was more complicated.
Was Sesay’s trial unique from other Special Court trials?  If so, in what ways?
in many ways no.  All trials were plagued by questions about payments to prosecution
witnesses.  Sesay’s case was unique in that it raised interesting questions about sentencing.   Ways his role in bringing peace to Sierra Leone might have mitigated his sentence.  He’s serving the equivalent of a life sentence, given his age.  Sentencing was an opportunity for the court to take into account a more holistic idea of his crimes and the
nature of crimes committed by his subordinates, but also some of the important things he did to end the war.
As an aside, here’s an excerpt on the issue of sentencing from the blog of William Schabas, a professor of human rights law and former member of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission:  http://humanrightsdoctorate.blogspot.com/2010/09/war-don-don.html
Personally, I remain troubled by the sentences that were imposed by the judgment (and upheld on appeal), and I had the impression that Rebecca does too. Sesay really got nothing in mitigation, receiving several concurrent sentences of which the highest is 52 years. The reasoning is not adequately explained in the sentencing judgment, which was upheld on appeal. The judgment condemns him to 35 years of extermination, 40 years for murder, 45 years for rape and 50 years for recruitment of child soldiers. Does that make any sense? I would have thought extermination was worse than murder, given that it involves multiple murders, and that both are more important than recruiting child soldiers. Nothing in the reasons helps to understand this. One might have thought that this was because of particular brutality or horror in specific acts perpetrated by Sesay. But he is convicted, essentially, as a leader and not a direct perpetrator, so that cannot provide an explanation.
What has been most surprising to you about the reaction from audiences of the film?
I just got back from spending 2 weeks in Sierra Leone to start our outreach campaign, partnering with other organizations.  Sierra Leonean audiences responded differently than American audiences.  Sierra Leoneans laughed through a lot of the film.  They laughed through parts that were ironic, and parts of testimony where they assumed witnesses were lying. Sierra Leoneans were not persuaded by parts of the rhetoric of Special Court officials.  This seemed a very different but very human response.  I think the laughter made a lot of Westerners in the room uncomfortable.
Jordash, legal counsel for Issa Sesay: “You
can’t expect to [prosecute] just a few people and have an historical
narrative that is balanced.”  Can you elaborate on why a war crimes
trial might not be great at creating an historical narrative?
It’s not that they never do it well, but it is an expectation that is
really high to meet.  What courts do well is determine whether someone
is guilty.  Courts often make huge claims that are hard to live up to.
On BBC the other night I heard Prince Johnson defending his war time history with
political rhetoric, trying to shift away from the criminal language of the interviewer.  Of
all the Special Court trials, which defendant do you think most succeeded in
presenting their actions as political?  And why?
I don’t want to delve into this area, but the CDF trial was fascinating on that
level.  The court prosecuted Hinga Norman, and not President Kabbah.
But whatever side you’re on, it’s impossible to justify crimes
against civilians.  There’s not a political end that lets you justify crimes
against civilians.  Any of the defendants would say there were political
motivations behind what they did.  Combatants generally frame their
actions politically.
Do you think the judges found any of the “political” arguments persuasive?
Clearly judges did not find the defense cases persuasive.  They discarded it in a few pages. The issue of payment to prosecution witnesses was never adjudicated on a substantive level.  Judges dismissed it on a technicalities.
Do you think the Special Court defendants, and Sesay specifically, got a fair trial?
Obviously it’s how you define fair.  This is not a film about a miscarriage of justice.  It’s a film about justice and the flaws in the trial.  I don’t think Sesay is an innocent man who got convicted, but there were problems with the prosecution’s case, hopefully we can avoid repeating these errors.
What is the biggest lesson future international war crimes tribunals should take from the Special Court?
The Special Court did some things quite well.  It’s outreach was quite effective.  It was the first major tribunal to take place where the crimes took place.  These are both important things.  The RUF trial was far too broad, and that made it hard to defend.  International criminal justice is very young.  Figuring out how to do it best is important.
I’ve blogged a lot about outreach and the Charles Taylor trial.  It seems to me most Liberians and Sierra Leoneans are not following the Taylor trial.  Do you think they did follow the Freetown-based Special Court trials?
Following the trial is not a measure of success per se.  Not many Sierra Leoneans followed the day-to-day proceedings of the trial.  But it’s not reasonable to expect that in the aftermath of war.  People are still struggling with poverty, working long hours.  While feelings about the Court were really mixed, people knew what it was.  They understood its mandate.  Attitudes about the Court depend on how you ask the question.  If you ask, “Does the RUF leadership deserve to be prosecuted?”  The answer in Sierra Leone would overwhelmingly be yes.  If you ask, “Would you rather have Sesay be prosecuted or use the money for food for your family?” you’ll get a very different answer.  And both are acceptable ways to ask the question.  People are happy the RUF was held accountable for crimes.  The CDF trial was more complicated.
Was Sesay’s trial unique from other Special Court trials?  If so, in what ways?
in many ways no.  All trials were plagued by questions about payments to prosecution
witnesses.  Sesay’s case was unique in that it raised interesting questions about sentencing.   Ways his role in bringing peace to Sierra Leone might have mitigated his sentence.  He’s serving the equivalent of a life sentence, given his age.  Sentencing was an opportunity for the court to take into account a more holistic idea of his crimes and the
nature of crimes committed by his subordinates, but also some of the important things he did to end the war.
As an aside, here’s an excerpt on the issue of sentencing from the blog of William Schabas, a professor of human rights law and former member of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission:  http://humanrightsdoctorate.blogspot.com/2010/09/war-don-don.html
Personally, I remain troubled by the sentences that were imposed by the judgment (and upheld on appeal), and I had the impression that Rebecca does too. Sesay really got nothing in mitigation, receiving several concurrent sentences of which the highest is 52 years. The reasoning is not adequately explained in the sentencing judgment, which was upheld on appeal. The judgment condemns him to 35 years of extermination, 40 years for murder, 45 years for rape and 50 years for recruitment of child soldiers. Does that make any sense? I would have thought extermination was worse than murder, given that it involves multiple murders, and that both are more important than recruiting child soldiers. Nothing in the reasons helps to understand this. One might have thought that this was because of particular brutality or horror in specific acts perpetrated by Sesay. But he is convicted, essentially, as a leader and not a direct perpetrator, so that cannot provide an explanation.
What has been most surprising to you about the reaction from audiences of the film?
I just got back from spending 2 weeks in Sierra Leone to start our outreach campaign, partnering with other organizations.  Sierra Leonean audiences responded differently than American audiences.  Sierra Leoneans laughed through a lot of the film.  They laughed through parts that were ironic, and parts of testimony where they assumed witnesses were lying. Sierra Leoneans were not persuaded by parts of the rhetoric of Special Court officials.  This seemed a very different but very human response.  I think the laughter made a lot of Westerners in the room uncomfortable.

Issa Sesay’s testimony

For almost 2 months former RUF leader Issa Sesay has been testifying for the defense at Charles Taylor’s trial, but you could be forgiven for not knowing this. (Google news hits for “Issa Sesay AND Charles Taylor”: 18. Google news hits for “Naomi Campbell AND Charles Taylor”: 1,862.) Sesay, convicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, is serving 52 years in a Rwandan prison.
At first, it seems odd that Sesay would testify for Taylor. One of the prosecution witnesses alleged that Taylor ordered Sesay killed in 2008. The prosecution says Sesay is testifying because Sesay thinks Taylor might be able to help him get out of prison if acquitted. Given the extraordinary spiritual and political power West Africans attribute to Taylor, I bet this is true. I also imagine Sesay’s family in Sierra Leone might benefit, somehow, through Taylor’s associates, in exchange for his supportive testimony. But that’s just a guess. Lapsing into a Taylor-esque habit of referring to himself in the third person, Sesay said his motivation for testifying was that: “I heard my colleagues saying a lot about Issa, things that Issa didn’t do.”
Highlights from Sesay’s testimony:
-Despite testifying for the defense, Sesay’s account of how former-former RUF leader Foday Sankoh and Taylor differs from Taylor’s account. Taylor says he met Sankoh only after he realized he would need to collaborate with the RUF to fend off domestic attacks from Sierra Leone government-supported ULIMO. Sesay said Sankoh told him that he met Taylor when they were both training in Libya. This testimony is good for the prosecution, which wants to show that Taylor and Sankoh had a relationship before the RUF invasion of Sierra Leone.
-Prosecution witnesses had testified that Taylor told Sesay that if Sesay released UN peacekeepers Taylor would help the RUF overthrow the Sierra Leonean government. Sesay agrees that he was under pressure from Taylor to release the peacekeepers, but denies there was a quid pro quo.
-Sesay testified that his meetings with Taylor were never to exchange diamonds for weapons, as the prosecution alleges, but rather discussions about how to make peace. This supports the defense painting of Taylor as a regional peacemaker.
-So how did the RUF pay for weapons, if not buy trading in diamonds? Sesay says, among other things, that the RUF sold produce harvested from civilian farms.
-Sesay’s account of how he became leader of the RUF goes against the idea that Taylor had command control of the RUF. Sesay says that when West Africa leaders decided that Sesay should lead the RUF after Sankoh was imprisoned, Taylor suggested that Sankoh be consulted on this. Sesay testified that Sankoh was against the idea of Sesay taking over.
-Sesay admitted that the RUF committed many of the crimes Taylor is accused of committed through joint criminal enterprise (eg rape, murder) but denies that Taylor told the RUF to do these things. This is in line with previous defense arguments.

For almost 2 months former RUF leader Issa Sesay has been testifying for the defense at Charles Taylor’s trial, but you could be forgiven for not knowing this. (Google news hits for “Issa Sesay AND Charles Taylor”: 18. Google news hits for “Naomi Campbell AND Charles Taylor”: 1,832.) Sesay, convicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, is serving 52 years in a Rwandan prison.

At first, it seems odd that Sesay would testify for Taylor. One prosecution witness alleged that Taylor ordered Sesay killed in 2008. The prosecution says Sesay is testifying because Sesay thinks Taylor might be able to help him get out of prison if acquitted. Given the extraordinary spiritual and political power West Africans attribute to Taylor, I bet this is true. I also imagine Sesay’s family in Sierra Leone might benefit, somehow, through Taylor’s associates, in exchange for his supportive testimony. But that’s just a guess. Lapsing into a Taylor-esque habit of referring to himself in the third person, Sesay said his motivation for testifying was that: “I heard my colleagues saying a lot about Issa, things that Issa didn’t do.”

Highlights from Sesay’s testimony:

  • Despite testifying for the defense, Sesay’s account of how former-former RUF leader Foday Sankoh and Taylor met differs from Taylor’s account. Taylor said he met Sankoh only after he realized he would need to collaborate with the RUF to fend off domestic attacks from Sierra Leone government-supported ULIMO. Sesay said Sankoh told him that he met Taylor when they were both training in Libya. This testimony is good for the prosecution, which wants to show that Taylor and Sankoh had a relationship before the RUF invasion of Sierra Leone.
  • Prosecution witnesses had testified that Taylor told Sesay that if Sesay released UN peacekeepers Taylor would help the RUF overthrow the Sierra Leonean government. Sesay agreed that he was under pressure from Taylor to release the peacekeepers, but denied there was a quid pro quo.
  • Sesay testified that his meetings with Taylor never involved exchanging diamonds for weapons, as the prosecution alleges, but rather involved discussions about how to bring peace to the region. This supports the defense portrait of Taylor as a regional peacemaker.
  • So how did the RUF pay for weapons, if not buy trading in diamonds? Sesay said, among other things, that the RUF sold produce harvested from civilian farms.
  • Sesay’s account of how he became leader of the RUF countered the notion that Taylor had command control of the RUF.  Sesay said that when West Africa leaders decided Sesay should lead the RUF after Sankoh was imprisoned, Taylor suggested that Sankoh be consulted on this.
  • Sesay admitted that the RUF committed many of the crimes Taylor is accused of committing through joint criminal enterprise (eg rape, murder) but denied that Taylor told the RUF to do these things. This is in line with previous defense arguments.

All of this is from The Trial of Charles Taylor blog.