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Interview with Rebecca Richman Cohen

Issac Sesay Wayne Jordash

HBO

You were in Sierre Leone working as part of the defense team of military commander Alex Tamba Brima. How did that happen?

REBECCA RICHMAN COHEN

I found myself on a fellowship in Sierra Leone and was interested in transitional justice.  I walked into the Special Court, and said, "I'm here for three months and I'm a third year law student." They asked, "Would you like to work on the prosecution or the defense?"

I had worked at a public defender office the summer before and felt very passionately about indigent criminal defense, defending people who couldn't afford their own lawyers. And here was an opportunity to be an advocate for someone who was accused -- and probably guilty of -- crimes on a very, very different scale. It seemed like a pretty remarkable opportunity.

When I got back to the United States people asked, "How can you defend a war criminal?" And the film in some ways is a response to that, why you would want to defend someone guilty of really terrible crimes but who deserves his day in court.  

HBO

Why did you choose to plot the story the way you did - opening with the verdict rather than letting the trial unfold?

REBECCA RICHMAN COHEN

Francisco Bello, who was the editor and producer of the film, and I decided on that very early on - before Issa Sesay was convicted. From our perspective, there was no doubt there would be a conviction. Whether it was because the prosecution had an overwhelmingly strong case  or whether the cards were stacked against him, everyone believed he'd be convicted. For us the real uncertainty in the trial was the sentencing. That was the moment the court really had an opportunity to look at the whole context of Sesay's life and his actions in the war and determine what might mitigate his sentence or make it longer.

HBO

Was there a reason why the trial was held in Sierra Leone rather than The Hague?

REBECCA RICHMAN COHEN

I think the Special Court was a response of the international community after the lessons learned from the tribunals of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. In many ways the Special Court was better than its predecessors which were held outside of the countries where the war crimes were committed. The International Tribunals of Yugoslavia and Rwanda did not have as vigorous outreach campaigns as the Special Court for Sierre Leone. And those tribunals are still going on, whereas the Special Court is about to finish its work.

HBO

How did the outreach program work?

REBECCA RICHMAN COHEN

The country is divided into 16 districts and there are two officers who work for the court in each of those districts constantly traveling through communities, holding screenings and having town hall meetings. Even though I don't think people were following the day to day of the trial, they absolutely knew who was being prosecuted and the fact that they were only prosecuting those who bore the greatest responsibility. Inasmuch as you can expect people who are putting their lives together in the aftermath of a terrible war to care about notions of justice, people did.

HBO

One question defense attorney Wayne Jordash posits is: Can you hold one person accountable for the crimes of many? Did you come to any conclusions?

REBECCA RICHMAN COHEN

People often ask if this is a film about the miscarriage of justice because so few people were tried and held accountable. It's not about a miscarriage of justice; it's about the nature of justice, that justice is always imperfect. Our expectations for these courts are just too high. I don't think peace in Sierra Leone would be more stable if 100 more people were prosecuted. If you are only prosecuting a small number, it is most important to get the people at the top. We need to go up the ranks and ask who's really responsible for making the decisions that issued the orders. Stopping it there -- that's the important message to send. The problem is how inconsistent the prosecutions are. Right now, it's seems the international community is only going after weak states or failed states, without asking tough questions about the complicity in war crimes of our own leaders.  

"... the truth of this war and all wars is that terrible, terrible crimes are committed by regular people who in different circumstances could have been a friend or a colleague."

HBO

Jordash says but for these circumstances he could have been friends with Sesay. Was he just a victim of circumstance?

REBECCA RICHMAN COHEN

I would definitely not characterize him as a victim of circumstance. I think you need to understand the circumstances in which he found himself in order to understand him, but I think he is guilty of war crimes even if the prosecution's case was off base in many ways.

But the truth of this war and all wars is that terrible, terrible crimes are committed by regular people who in different circumstances could have been a friend or a colleague. It's what Hannah Arendt calls "the banality of evil." To be a defense lawyer, you need to look and your client and not judge them for the worst things they've ever done in their lives. If you're really going to act as an advocate for them, you have to connect to them as a human being. It's true if you're working in a public defender's office, or if you're representing a war criminal.

HBO

The defense questions the methods by which the prosecution obtains its witnesses. Do circumstances necessitate the prosecution pay its witnesses?

REBECCA RICHMAN COHEN

There are real costs associated with initial investigations that create additional expenses for the prosecution. The prosecution needs to figure out who to indict and what charges to bring.  That's why the rules of the Court allow for additional funding for the prosecution to compensate potential witnesses during the investigation period. But after the investigation, I don't think there's no legitimate reason why the prosecution should continue to compensate witnesses.  This should fall to the Registry, which is a neutral administrative wing of the Court, to covers reasonable expenses for both prosecution and defense witnesses - expenses such as: transportation, medical expenses, and missed wages.

The defense raised this issue in the trial, but it was never substantively adjudicated.  I think for future tribunals, this is one area where Courts can be more transparent and even-handed.  

HBO

What did Sesay think about having his trial turned into a documentary?

REBECCA RICHMAN COHEN

He trusted his lawyers and his lawyers trusted us. We were the first filmmakers allowed into the Special Court and he was really eager to tell his story. He's serving his sentence in Rwanda and he watched the film there. He called me from The Hague, while he was at the trial of Charles Taylor, and he told me the film was very nice and he appreciated the effort and thought it exposed some of the injustices of the Special Court.

It's interesting because we've also had a warm response from prosecutors and war victims and other groups who thought their stories were well balanced and accurately represented.

HBO

So it screened in Sierra Leone?

REBECCA RICHMAN COHEN

I went back for two weeks after South by Southwest. We did open and public screenings, we had a panel discussion with the chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with the chairman of the Human Rights Commission, outreach screenings, screenings at the Special Court. We dubbed the entire film into Krio so that people can understand it in their own language. We've continued to partner with organizations in Freetown who are using the film to train paralegals and civil society activists and using the film to support their own ongoing efforts regarding rule of law and access to justice questions.

HBO

What do you hope the documentary will teach future generations?

REBECCA RICHMAN COHEN

The hope is to promote debate. Sesay went on to testify for Charles Taylor's defense. He was brought to The Hague and testified for a few weeks -- I don't know if you were following -- Mia Farrow and Naomi Campbell interrupted his testimony. He decided not to retain his own counsel, and contradicted things that he had said in his own trial. He recalled things differently than when he had been testifying for his own defense. That speaks to how we need to be careful when we look at the stories that come out of the trials. 

HBO

What's the situation now in Sierra Leone?

REBECCA RICHMAN COHEN

I don't think anyone concerned in the immediate future thinks that Sierre Leone will re-erupt into conflict. But I think there are serious concerns that the root causes of the conflict are not being addressed. It's not by punishing the top 10 guys you're going to prevent war in the future.  You have to address the reasons why people picked up arms in the first place: rampant corruption in the government, lack of access to justice for common people, tribalism, nepotism, people not feeling like they had a space to express any political dissent. The civil society is working hard to address these issues, but it's very slow going and there are concerns that a great deal of work needs to be done.

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