Tag Archives: justice

On camera cancer beams and Taylor’s doctorate

Nicholas Jahr has written the most interesting article I’ve seen on the Charles Taylor trial. (h/t to Dan)

“My name is Dankpannah Dr. Charles Ghankay Taylor, the 21st President of the Republic of Liberia.” Taylor’s first words on the witness stand [...]

“Ghankay” [...] means “one who is strong.” Taylor picked up the doctorate after he was elected president, while visiting Taiwan, a gift from the Chinese Culture University for granting the country diplomatic recognition.

He first claimed the title “Dankpannah” back in 1997, when he married Jewel Howard (now a senator in Liberia, and the chair of Taylor’s National Patriotic Party). Nobody had heard the honorific until it was used in their wedding vows, which raised some eyebrows. Despite its indigenous ring, its origins are unclear. It suggests Taylor was recognized as the leader of the Poro, the initiation societies of Liberia’s bush, except historically the Poro didn’t have a single leader, certainly not before the mid-20th century, when the Americo-Liberian elite began trying to centralize control over the tradition. On cross-examination, the prosecution argued Taylor wasn’t even the rightful possessor of the title.

More telling is what Taylor left out of the equation: His full given name is Charles McArthur Taylor, a fact he himself mentioned in passing the following day. That makes him sound more like one of the aforementioned Americo-Liberians, a descendant of the freed slaves who “founded” Liberia. [...] By dropping “McArthur,” Taylor downplayed his Americo-Liberian origins [...], and played up the image of the African leader under interrogation.

On Taylor taking the stand in his own defense for weeks:

As Taylor continues to hold forth uninterrupted day after day, week after week, it’s hard to escape the sense that an implicit deal has been struck: the prosecutor won’t object, Griffiths will appear to ride herd, and Taylor will say his piece. No one will be able to say he didn’t have the chance to make his case; no one will be able to challenge the orderliness, the legitimacy of his prosecution.

On a strange discussion of a camera:

Taylor’s one lunatic moment on the stand comes out of nowhere [...]. Griffiths is questioning him about his government’s arrest of documentarian Sorious Samura and his crew nine years earlier on charges of espionage. Taylor says that the interview Samura had scheduled was “an attempt to kill me.” But he goes further: “A major Western intelligence source” informed his government that the camera Samura would use to tape the interview “contained some beam or something that fired at me would, over a period of time, lead to cancer.” As Taylor was told: “The camera is going to be your demise.”

Griffiths did not follow up. Of course, the source might simply have meant that Taylor was liable to betray himself on film, or that mere reporting was more of a threat to his rule than any rebellion. Then again, Fidel Castro has claimed that in 1971 the C.I.A. designed a camera with a gun inside to take him out. In 2001, two men posing as documentary filmmakers assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud in Afghanistan; their camera was packed full of explosives (Taylor would later claim he’d been briefed about this, although it occurred a year after Samura’s arrest; the prosecution seized on that as evidence of perjury). Cancer-beams aside, the claim wasn’t quite as crazy as it might seem. Or maybe it was simply an attempt to stoke Taylor’s paranoia. It was one of the few hints of the Taylor so often portrayed in the international media: a man enthralled by superstition and dark portents.

There is a justifiably damning critique of former prosecutor David Crane, who Jahr shows was unqualfied (before the Taylor trial, he had no courtroom experience) and made bad prosecutorial decisions (e.g. the decision to indict Hinga Norman). Jahr quotes an official who suggests no one could fight Bush’s nomination of Crane because of US financial support to the Special Court.

Griffiths on international law

From an excellent article about Charles Taylor’s lead lawyer, Courtenay Griffiths, and his thoughts on international criminal prosecution. H/t to Kate Thomas.

I ask Griffiths why he thinks this liberal hypocrisy persists. ‘I think that’s because, however deceitful an idea is, it will always catch on if there is truth at one level in it’, he answers. ‘And the truth is that Africa has suffered more wars and more destruction than most other continents over the last 50 years. So there is a need for an end to impunity in Africa. But it’s the way the West is going about it in a selective fashion. A selectivity of denunciation, a selectivity of investigation, a selectivity of prosecution, and even within Africa, a selectivity of indictment. Everyone knows, for example, that [Rwandan president Paul] Kagame and [Ugandan president Yoweri] Musaveni have got their hands covered in blood in eastern Congo. But the West is never going to go after them because they’re Western allies.’
There are limits to this critique of international law, however bracing and insightful it is. It assumes that the main problem is simply that international law is too partial, too selective.  But would everything be okay if international law was genuinely universal? Would everything be hunky-dory if there really did exist arbiters sitting high above human affairs capable of administering justice impartially and without selectivity? In short, would it be okay if Bush and Blair were tried at the ICC, too?

[Griffiths says:] ‘And the truth is that Africa has suffered more wars and more destruction than most other continents over the last 50 years. So there is a need for an end to impunity in Africa. But it’s the way the West is going about it in a selective fashion. A selectivity of denunciation, a selectivity of investigation, a selectivity of prosecution, and even within Africa, a selectivity of indictment. Everyone knows, for example, that [Rwandan president Paul] Kagame and [Ugandan president Yoweri] Musaveni have got their hands covered in blood in eastern Congo. But the West is never going to go after them because they’re Western allies.’

There are limits to this critique of international law, however bracing and insightful it is. It assumes that the main problem is simply that international law is too partial, too selective.

Canada on the wrong side of history: The Cindor Reeves case

Michael Petrou, a reporter with Macleans, has been following tirelessly the case of Cindor Reeves.  Reeves is a Liberian seeking refugee status in Canada.  He has helped the prosecution in the Charles Taylor trial and has been an informant for Global Witness.  While Reeves did smuggle diamonds and weapons to Taylor, there is no evidence that he directly harmed anyone.  Yet the Canadian government is attempting to deport him, despite the fact that he would be in grave danger back in West Africa.

Petrou received thousands of pages of document pertaining to Reeves’ case from the Canadian Immigration Refugee Board through an access to information request.  Petrou has determined that the government lacks any information that would go against Reeves’ case. In his latest article Petrou highlights extraordinary government incompetence:

  • One of the government lawyers, Brenda Lloyd, did not know what MI-5 was.
  • Lloyd doesn’t think Reeves would really be in danger back home, because if he was legit worried he wouldn’t have spoken with Petrou for previous articles in Macleans.  This makes no sense.  If I was worried about being deported I would definitely go to a reporter to make my case better known among people of the potential host country.
  • Reeves’ family has been allowed to stay in Canada on the basis that it would be too dangerous for them to return to Liberia given their association with Reeves.   So how could it possibly be safe for Reeves to return?  This is absurd.

Petrou quotes part of an affidavit submitted by Christopher Santora, one of the Charles Taylor trial prosecutors: “I can state unequivocally that Cindor Reeves is one of the few people in this whole conflict that did the right thing when the opportunity presented itself. I state this as someone who has dealt with hundreds of ‘insiders,’ former commanders and direct perpetrators…”  Reeves has redeemed himself and deserves to stay in Canada.

Petrou writes: “Reeves has received a removal order from Canada Border Services Agency. His last chance to stay in Canada — temporarily — is a pre-removal risk assessment, now underway.”

Local perceptions of ICTY v. SCSL

I’ve just come across a 2006 article by Donna Artz comparing local perceptions of the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.  Hat tip to Mark.

Artz found, among other things, that while a majority of Serbs and Croatians advocated non-cooperation with the ICTY, Sierra Leonean concerns about the SCSL were more narrow, relating to technical issues of implementation.

The article [gated] is here.

Kouwenhoven case update

Remember Guus Kouwenhoven?  Kouwenhoven is the Dutch arms dealer who was convicted of violating the arms embargo on Liberia by transporting weapons to Charles Taylor during Taylor’s presidency.  An appeals court acquitted Kouwenhoven in 2008, partly due to issues of witness credibility.  Then the Dutch Supreme Court overturned the acquittal in 2009.

Now Reuters is reporting that judges granted a pre-trial defense request to call Taylor as witness.  The logistics of this are beyond me.  How would the timing of Taylor’s possible testimony be positioned vis a vis his own trial?  Would Taylor want to testify?  Maybe he would, as issues of witness credibility have plagued his own trial.

Taylor trial judges permit defense to admit Wikileaks cable into evidence

Judges for the Charles Taylor trial have agreed to allow the defense to introduce new evidence, namely a US cable on the Taylor trial that Wikileaks released.  Justice Julia Sebutinde, who is named in the cables, recused herself from ruling on the motion of whether or not to admit the cable into evidence.

The cable blames Sebutinde for slowing the pace of the trialby not excluding “extraneous and material arguments.”  The cable alleges that Sebutinde wanted to slow the trial so that she could be the presiding judge when Taylor’s judgement was announced.  Sebutinde denies this, and has insinuated that the author of the cable is racist.  (She is the only African judge for this trial.)

The text of the ruling, along with Sebutinde’s declaration, is here.  I’m not sure what this means for the timing of closing arguments, but I suspect they will be pushed back.

Culture and language

I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book that has stayed with me as much as Tim Kelsall‘s, Culture Under Cross-Examination: International Justice and the Special Court for Sierra LeoneI blogged about it in January here.  Kelsall writes about the huge variation between the way Court officials and witnesses use language.  

I’ve been thinking about this book while reading another book: David Abram‘s Becoming Animal.  Abram writes:

Once inscribed on the page, language–as we’ve learned–takes on a detached fixity very different from the way language is experienced in a deeply oral culture.  [...]  Material things seemed to become more stable and determinate.

This reminded me that the secrecy Kelsall describes among Sierra Leonean and Liberian witnesses was not just a function of having been through a long war, where information becomes more valuable.  It was also a function of living in a culture more oral than the culture Court officials lived in. 

Kelsall writes about the frustrating and often futile attempts to get accurate factual accounts of events from witnesses.  I thought of this as I read this line in Abram’s book:

For literal truth is a very recent invention, brought into being by alphabetic literacy.  The word “literal,” after all, derives from the Latin word for letter. 

“They did not know that they had been sent by wicked people, people who want to hide the truth of their lives behind the truth of mine.”

[A Liberian Woman in Staten Island, on Truth and Reconciliation Commission volunteers:] These two lovely white men came to my door, to say that the truth heals. They were well meaning; they had taken time off from their weekends to help us poor Africans. They did not know that they had been sent by wicked people, people who want to hide the truth of their lives behind the truth of mine.
That’s a quote from Jonny Steinberg’s fantastic new African Affairs article on how Liberians in Staten Island reacted to the TRC.
600 TRC volunteers took only 237 statements from all Liberians in the US.   Looking at Liberians in Staten Island, Steinberg accounts for the lack of participation by analyzing the intersection of intra-community fighting and distrust, suspicion and confusion about TRC motives, and the TRC’s approach to statement taking.
The TRC
Steinberg explains how the TRC has been clouded in confusion since its inception.  When warlords agreed to stop fighting, they did this under the implicit assumption that the TRC would be like South Africa’s, and grant them amnesty.  Though no one wanted to explicitly ask for this to be put in writing.  In fact the TRC was prohibited from granting amnesty for those accused of especially bad crimes, and had the power to recommend prosecution.  Many warlords inaccurately believed that had been granted amnesty, and would not have stopped fighting if they understood what the TRC’s real mandate.  This confusion extended to Liberians in State Island, where few understood the TRC would recommend prosecution.
Moreover, the TRC’s mission was so vast it was almost meaningless.  The TRC claimed it reached out to the diaspora to collect information that would contribute to a narrative about the war and its causes, yet it did not have the tools to do serious investigation.  Steinberg implies the TRC reached out to the diaspora for symbolic reasons.
The TRC’s final report recommended that more than 100 people be prosecuted for war crimes.  Steinberg notes that in many cases individuals on the list were not mentioned elsewhere in the report, and that, “[p]rivately, TRC commissioners acknowledged that this [list was included in the final report] to salvage the credibility of the TRC.”
Park Hill
Steinberg’s discussion of the politics of division among Liberians in Staten Island reflects the enormous amount of research he has done on this topic for a forthcoming book.  He describes how the Park Hill housing project became a community of Liberians who had trouble “making it” in the US.  He explains the origins of high level of distrust and secrecy; many have overstayed visitor’s visas, and others told stories about war time suffering to officials who would determine asylum status that were not entirely true.  Why should you share information about your past when your enemies could use it against you?  ”The most dangerous information one might share about oneself was one’s experience of the war,” Steinberg writes.
Yet as the Liberian war was ending, “these codes of silence were broken dramatically..[and] something of a proxy war began…ostensibly for control of the elected body representing Staten Island’s Liberians.”  Steinberg tells the story of Rufus, a leader of the community who had political ambitions back home.   “Park Hill’s relation to America was like Liberia’s relation to the global economy: marginal, excluded, knocking forever on the door. And Rufus A. was the gatekeeper, accruing a handsome fee for keeping the gate between Park Hill and America. Never mind that Roza’s money came from American philanthropies rather than the Firestone Rubber Company. The principle was the same.”
A party not under Rufus’ sway emerged to contest the elections.  So Rufus created his own party, which won elections twice.  But the elections were deeply contentious and accusations of fraud followed.  This led to a period of turmoil in the community, where its associations lost lots of money from New York donors.  Rufus’ soccer association–which had branches in Minnesota and the Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana–went broke.
The TRC and Park Hill
While this was happening, Liberians in Staten Island followed TRC processes back home.  They saw how warlords openly mocked TRC officials.  When there was a knock on their door, and two white people representing the TRC and a Liberian community leader (who was inevitably part of the community’s political in-fighting) asked the resident to tell their story, I find it shocking the TRC even got 247 people to agree to talk.

[A Liberian Woman in Staten Island, on Truth and Reconciliation Commission volunteers:] “These two lovely white men came to my door, to say that the truth heals. They were well meaning; they had taken time off from their weekends to help us poor Africans. They did not know that they had been sent by wicked people, people who want to hide the truth of their lives behind the truth of mine.”

That’s a quote from Jonny Steinberg’s fantastic new African Affairs article, “A Truth Commission Goes Abroad: Liberian Transitional Justice in New York.”  (I can’t find the article online yet, but I imagine it will be up very soon.)

600 TRC volunteers took only 237 statements from all Liberians in the US.   Looking at Liberians in Staten Island, Steinberg accounts for the lack of participation by analyzing the intersection of intra-community fighting and distrust, suspicion and confusion about TRC motives, and the TRC’s approach to statement taking.

The TRC

Steinberg explains how the TRC has been clouded in confusion since its inception.  When warlords agreed to stop fighting, they did this under the implicit assumption that the TRC would be like South Africa’s, and grant them amnesty.  Though no one wanted to explicitly ask for this to be put in writing.  In fact the TRC was prohibited from granting amnesty for those accused of especially bad crimes, and had the power to recommend prosecution.  Many warlords inaccurately believed they had been granted amnesty, and would not have stopped fighting if they understood the TRC’s real mandate.  This confusion extended to Liberians in State Island, where few understood the TRC would recommend prosecution.  (Here Steinberg draws on this riveting 2007 ICTJ report.)

Moreover, the TRC’s mission was so vast it was almost meaningless.  The TRC claimed it reached out to the diaspora to collect information that would contribute to a narrative about the war and its causes, yet it did not have the tools to do serious investigation.  Steinberg implies the TRC reached out to the diaspora for mostly symbolic reasons.

The TRC’s final report recommended that more than 100 people be prosecuted for war crimes.  Steinberg notes that in many cases individuals on the list were not mentioned elsewhere in the report, and that, “[p]rivately, TRC commissioners acknowledged that this [list was included in the final report] to salvage the credibility of the TRC.”

Park Hill

Steinberg’s discussion of the politics of division among Liberians in Staten Island reflects the enormous amount of research he has done on this topic for a forthcoming book.  He describes how the Park Hill housing project became a space for Liberians who had trouble “making it” in the US.  He explains the origins of high levels of distrust and secrecy; many have overstayed visitor’s visas, and others told stories about war time suffering to officials who would determine asylum status that were not entirely true.  Why should you share information about your past when your enemies could use it against you?  ”The most dangerous information one might share about oneself was one’s experience of the war,” Steinberg writes.

Yet as the Liberian war was ending, “these codes of silence were broken dramatically..[and] something of a proxy war began…ostensibly for control of the elected body representing Staten Island’s Liberians.”  Steinberg tells the story of Rufus, a leader of the community who had political ambitions back home.   “Park Hill’s relation to America was like Liberia’s relation to the global economy: marginal, excluded, knocking forever on the door. And Rufus A. was the gatekeeper, accruing a handsome fee for keeping the gate between Park Hill and America. Never mind that Roza’s money came from American philanthropies rather than the Firestone Rubber Company. The principle was the same.”

A party not under Rufus’ sway emerged to contest the elections.  So Rufus created his own party, which won elections twice.  But the elections were deeply contentious and accusations of fraud followed.  This led to a period of turmoil in the community, where its associations lost lots of money from New York donors.  Rufus’ soccer association–which had branches in Minnesota and the Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana–went broke.

The TRC and Park Hill

While this was happening, Liberians in Staten Island followed TRC hearings back home.  They saw how warlords openly mocked TRC commissioners.  When there was a knock on their door, and two white people representing the TRC, and a Liberian community leader (who was inevitably part of the community’s political in-fighting) asked the resident to tell their story, I find it shocking the TRC even got 247 people to agree to talk.

The article is a must-read.  It is the second Steinberg has written for African Affairs about the TRC.  The first, which was just as good, is available here.  I blogged about it here.

Sirleaf’s relationship with her stepson

Johnny Dwyer (author of the 2008 Rolling Stone profile of Chuckie Taylor) has a fascinating article in Time about the strained relationship between Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her stepson, Fombah Sirleaf.

Fombah heads Liberia’s National Security Agency.  In cooperation with the US Drug Enforcement Agency, the NSA caught a Russian pilot who was attempting to transport $100 million of cocaine through Liberia.  The Russian alleges he was tortured while in NSA custody, and this is in line with other claims of abuse at the NSA since Fombah became its head.  Dwyer also notes that the president publicly criticized Fombah after he attempted to arrest a government official who had criticized the her.

This article is everything the New York Times profile of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf wasn’t: interesting, original, and critical.

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.