War Don Don: the complexity of trying Issa Sesay

by Abhishek Bhatnagar

Just finished watching the documentary film War Don Don. It follows the trial of Issa Sesay at The Special Court for Sierra Leone, the same institution that recently convicted Charles Taylor.

Sesay was the interim leader of the Revolutionary United Front rebel group during the Sierra Leone civil war before being a senior commander for them. He acquired this position after the leader and founder Foday Sankoh was arrested and the organization was left headless.

The RUF is generally known for wreaking havoc during the civil war while indulging in killing, raping, maiming, and following a typical hedonistic methodology without making a distinction between civilians and the enemy. In fact in 1998, it launched “Operation Spare No Soul” to protest the arrest of Sankoh. The RUF claimed that the campaign was meant to target international forces or “mercenaries”, but evidence shows otherwise. However, what is important to realize in a situation like this is that not everyone who belongs to the organization participates in all its activities, and hence might have a lesser or greater personal responsibility for the crimes of the organization. Rephrasing that, defining someone guilty by association is not serving justice.

This is exactly the case that Sesay’s defence team tried to make – that he himself was not guilty of all the charges laid upon him. Though Sesay himself admitted that he could not have avoided the charge of recruiting and using child soldiers, he does earnestly seem to believe that he should be absolved of the rest. The documentary tries its best to be impartial to Sesay (I think), at times even taking his side emotionally. But on the whole, it raises some very interesting points that come up often when dealing with cases like this under international law.

The charges laid against Sesay included: “terrorizing civilians, collective punishments, unlawful killings, crimes against humanity, sexual violence, physical violence, use of child soldiers, abductions and forced labor, looting and burning, and attacks on UNAMSIL personnel”. A full list of the charges is available in this PDF document starting on page 8, or here with a bit of an explanation to them.

What distinguishes Sesay from most other rebel and militia heads is that despite advice to do otherwise, between 1999 and 2002, he disarmed his party to a large extent. This led to the RUF being significantly weakened allowing the international forces to achieve their military objectives and bringing the war to an end. The documentary shows that Sesay had been asked by the imprisoned leadership of the RUF and Charles Taylor himself not to disarm. In fact Sesay had apparently been told that if he does disarm, he will end up in prison; an event that actually occurred when he met with the warner in prison. All of this of course begs the question, why did Sesay disarm.

He himself claims that he did it because he sought peace. Even though he had committed many a crimes earlier, that he was only using those as a means to an end, rather than as the end itself as some of the other RUF leaders had done. It is very very hard to tell if this was indeed the case, but even the chief prosecutor Stephen J. Rapp seemed to hint that Sesay ultimately made his decision in favour of peace.

Does this mean that Sesay is deserving of our sympathy or that he should be absolved of some of his crimes? Was it just that he was a soldier who happened to be caught up in a situation in which his options were either to commit crimes or to die? Even if this were the case, should we and the international justice system forgive his crimes at the expense of the tens of thousands of victims?

My answer to such questions is usually no. The end does not justify the means, but I do submit that this is a very complex issue. If Sesay had different fortune and if the RUF had won the war, I imagine that he would be in a position like Paul Kagame’s right now. He might not have been the president, but he would have been part of the senior leadership (as the Lome Peace Accord guaranteed anyway). Paul Kagame was also a military leader whose troops committed many a crimes; the difficulty in such situations is always in placing the blame. It makes sense that the leadership share the responsibility especially if it can be established that they were aware of the actions of the troops (a judgement I have left to the prosecutors of the trial), but we also have to consider what choices did the leader have.

After being pronounced guilty, Sesay said that he wants the world to take note that he, a rebel military leader gave up arms and surrendered in the interest of peace, but is now the ONLY member of the RUF leadership being convicted of any crimes (he was sentenced on 16 charges, the biggest being 52 years). His defence lawyer suggests that this is a terrible message to send to other rebel groups in the world who are being asked to surrender. They could only draw from this case that were they to give up, only a life sentence would await them with no mercy. Hence it would be in their best interests to continue fighting to the death with nothing to lose.

I’ll be going to bed with these thoughts in my head tonight. How else could this case have been handled? It involved arresting a man who wanted to make peace, but had a monstrous background. We should also take note that his background might have been a function of his circumstances for which he is not to blame. In collecting evidence and testimonies to convict this man, others who also committed horrendous war crimes (but did not sit in influential positions) were let go and in one case even hired by the defence team.

Wayne Jordash, Sesay’s lead defence upon losing says of the court, “Any process which isn’t prepared to examine itself is fundamentally flawed. You [the Special Court] have such an impetus towards convicting everybody before the Court, and that doesn’t lend itself to a truth-finding process”. Absolutely true. But what he is overlooking is the cost of defending that man. If you have to let other criminals go to maintain the sanctity of one trial, then you are not serving justice.

Complex issues indeed. Anyway, I would recommend the documentary for watching for anyone interested in such topics. It is on Netflix if that makes it any easier.