Fleeing the Jurisdiction

The trial of Foday Sankoh
February 2, 2007, 2:12 am
Filed under: Law, Sierra Leone

The judge sat in silence for a full five minutes, his wordless rage expressed only through flailing gestures of dismissal, directed at his infamous courtroom guest. Stroking his unkempt and greying beard, there was nothing to outwardly mark the man who had gone from corporal in the Sierra Leone Army (and part-time wedding photographer) to commander in chief of a revolutionary movement vying with stiff competition for the title of the bloodiest in West Africa. If, aside from the training he recieved at Gaddafi’s notorious “House of Blood” in Benghazi, charisma played a part in his rise, there was none of it on show now.

Perhaps he knew, sitting quietly in the dock, that thugs in his employ had, some months previous, attacked the judge’s house at night, forcing him to flee over a high wall. The judge was still nursing a limp from the fall, in which he had broken his leg. Given Sierra Leone’s meagre medical resources, the bone would probably never be properly set and the man with the gavel would likely carry for the rest of his life an all too apparent reminder of the violence and fear that the RUF had brought.

Finally able to sputter a few words through his fury, the judge announced that the trial would take seven days. After which, he added, before a packed gallery of eager BBC and CNN hacks, Foday Sankoh would be sentenced to death. Sweat trickled down his face from beneath the absurd horsehair wig he wore, another unproductive and counterintuitive legacy of British administration. Waveringly, the accused raised his hand, and the journalists readied pens and dictaphones for an utterance that might well make the history books. Instead, Sankoh asked for permission to go to the toilet. Apoplectic, the judge ordered that he be removed before he defecated all over the courtroom.

Swept up by the mandate of the newly constituted Special Court, Sankoh never faced sentence in the domestic jurisdiction. Awaiting transfer to his suite in the UN-guarded detention blocks, he was held at Pademba Road Prison, a crumbling colonial monolith now teeming with four times its intended population. Apart from the prisoners, many of them having spent years without charge for some minor offence committed against a government official, there is a parallel community of insects swarming in the untended filth. Reputedly placed below even this on the evolutionary scale, is the man set to guard Sankoh. He is known for the pleasure he takes in torturing inmates.

Following his entry into the custody of the Special Court, it was apparent Sankoh’s health was failing. Before he could reach trial, in a great loss for the annals of international criminal law and – more importantly – for the Sierra Leoneans who had waited long to see him face justice, he died, reportedly of complications from a stroke. The Chief Prosecutor who had been readying the case against him remarked that his passing had granted him “a peaceful end that he denied to so many others.” I was not there to witness these events; this story was related to me by one who was.


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