Script Of A Treason That Never Was
It was Wednesday the 1st day of the new month of July in 2020. The outside scenery of the incident under review took place on a dark and wet evening in the deserted streets of Freetown, around the famous cotton tree area that is the quintessential landmark of this old city. Adjacent to this historical edifice sits the Courts of superior judicature especially the High Courts of the Land. The event unfolding was a returning jury in a trial of treason among other gun related felonies that involved a former Minister of the erstwhile APC Government, the Deputy Commissioner of the Small Arms Commission and a former paymaster at the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces. Their verdict was not guilty of 14 out of the 16 counts faced by the former Minister while the other two accused were freed on all the counts they faced.
The trial which took slightly over a month has been the topic of conversation in the lips of Sierra Leoneans from all walks of life and most especially the unemployed who were greatly disadvantaged by the negative socio-economic consequences of this perceived security threat. With the central area of the business district of Freetown always cordoned off whenever the Court trying the matter sits which happened most of the time in the last two months, the pace of recovery of the ailing economy of our country further stalled by the corona virus pandemic was intermittently arrested if not suffocated by the proceedings and its security ramifications.
It all started on that fateful day in March this year, when our pro-active President in the fight against the deadly corona scourge summoned a meeting of both his current public health advisers and the former leadership in our fight against Ebola to State House. The purpose of that meeting was to discuss a plausible strategy in our nation’s preparedness against any outbreak of the disease in our country. The suspect of treason in question was a former Minister of Defense, a retired Major in the country’s armed forces and an English trained Barrister named Major (Retired) Pallor Conteh.
From his experience, exposure and education, the citizenry especially loyalists to the governing party and some independents thought that he ought to know better; as those qualities should have put him in a good stead to know and appreciate the consequences of entering State House with a gun. Loyalists of his opposition APC party argued in the contrary and trivialized the deed as forgivable and an act that is far from treason. Further, that charging the accused with treason was political and an attempt to suppress and intimidate the opposition.
These diverse perceptions of the unfolding legal drama occupied the minds of our compatriots and fueled the debate as the patiently turning wheels of justice endeavors to prove the innocence or guilt of the accused persons in the dock.
As the case progress, the inconvenience of movement in the central commercial district of the capital and the challenges faced by the prosecution in proving the elements of their case constantly popularized by the press, intensified the discourse and widen the political and ethnic divide among all ages on this all-important case and its grave social and economic consequences.
While ardent supporters of the opposition argue that legally and practically one man cannot overthrow a sitting democratic government and that the allegation of treason was spurious and politically motivated; the supporters of government make reference to the unjustified killing of former Vice President Francis Minah, the Kai Kai brothers and others as a politically motivated plot based on flimsy evidence and a dependent judiciary which should be avenged.
However, the people of Sierra Leone represented by the jurors who had the final say in this matter free from any pressure and appealing to their individual conscience came out boldly and soundly to say “NOT GULTY!” on 14 of the 16 counts the accused persons faced. This verdict was unique and a novelty in the history and jurisprudence of treason in our country and also sends a clear message that allegations of coups, attempted coups, treason and other security related threats on our democracy must be supported by cogent and waterproof evidence to get a conviction because of the overriding suspicion that such allegations almost always have political motives which many detest today.
It is now apparent that even though the retired major may have been careless, reckless or stupid to have taken a pistol to the citadel of power with his education, exposure and experience, yet he never had any intention by that silly act of overthrowing the government of Sierra Leone. Now, one wonders why the treason counts were included in the indictment when it was not supported by any evidence much more so the required evidence which should be strong enough to prove the elements of the offence beyond all reasonable doubt. For years to come the Law Officers and current titular leadership of the Bar will be charged to provide answers to that question for posterity to either condemn or vindicate the exercise of their prosecutorial discretion in this case.
Government as a whole must bask in the glory that under their watch justice was seen to be done and this verdict will come as a relief to judicial sceptics that our nation is indeed moving away from an era of a dependent to one of an independent judiciary at least in its conduct of jury trials for the most heinous offences. Upholding the rule of law is the head cornerstone of our democracy as it provides a solid foundation for the private sector to invest fearlessly in the growth of the economy while promoting law and order. This singular act by the jury has restored confidence in our democracy and has further enhanced our democratic credentials as a nation that ensures justice and fairness for all without fear or favour.
Our nation’s political history is inundated with accusations of coups and attempted coups leading to Treason Trials that were politically motivated to get rid of perceived detractors or dissidents; however, in most of those cases evidence was manufactured to prove the offences with political interference to ensure the jury return the chosen verdict of the political leadership of the day.
A case in point was the treason trial of The State vs Mohamed Gabriel Tennyson Kai Kai and others. As a young barrister then, I was part of the Defence Team as co-counsel representing Kassim Allie one of the accused persons. The Paramount Hotel which was situated in the building now hosting the Ministry of Defence was the weekend spot for Lawyers then. I was returning home from Paramount Hotel which is a stone throw from State House one fateful Friday evening at around 8:00 pm when I saw the mini bus that was transporting members of the jury to and from their sequestered home exiting the gate of State House with all 12 jurors on board. As a young English trained Barrister i was bemused by this unfortunate occurrence on the night before a guilty verdict was returned on all the counts facing the accused. This was evidence of classic political interference in the judiciary and a key reason behind the socio-economic decadence that characterized our nation’s 13 years bondage under One Party Rule.
With that chequered legal history the verdict of the jury in the just concluded treason trial came as a welcome news and wishfully signals the start of a new period of judicial renaissance for the nation.
The cost to the nation for this botched treason trial that was unnecessary and irrelevant in the first place is huge both socially and financially for a nation still recovering from numerous tragedies. The accused persons also went through an ordeal of psychological torture with their fundamental human rights grossly violated leaving Government exposed and vulnerable to possible civil suits for false imprisonment and malicious prosecution. As a nation we must in future adopt and replicate the courage of the jury in doing the right thing to ensure fairness and justice. Also, political sentiments and consideration should play no part in the exercise of our prosecutorial discretion to charge that for which there is evidence and avoid charging suspects with offences that cannot be proven taking cognizance of the far -reaching negative security and socio-economic implications of our advice and decision.
By Sulaiman Banja Tejan-Sie
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