From 1991 to 2001, the RUF fought to overthrow the ruling government of Sierra Leone. In 2003, after the end of the war, the United Nations and the government of Sierra Leone spent more than $200 million building a Special Court to seek justice and reconciliation, setting up the world’s first international war crimes “hybrid tribunal.”
Three years in the making, WAR DON DON draws on unprecedented access to the inner workings of the defense and prosecution in Issa Sesay’s trial, including access to Sesay himself, exploring the contradictions of a man who dealt in blood diamonds, commanded child soldiers and was blamed for mass atrocities against civilians, while also being credited by some with single-handedly ending the war.
The prosecution, led by Stephen Rapp (who was recently appointed Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues by President Obama), argues that the trial is supposed to assess the guilt of those at the top, who routinely turned a blind eye to the misdeeds of men under their command. Wayne Jordash, Sesay’s lead defense lawyer, counters that his client was an uneducated young man who was coerced into fighting. Moreover, he says, “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.” Saying that he believes the Special Court has an important place, Sesay offers his own version of the war.
While the trial is underway in Sierra Leone’s capital of Freetown, the Outreach Group of the Special Court visits rural communities to answer questions and show videotape of the proceedings. While some people feel the trial is positive and a step towards the country’s reconciliation, others are angry, believing some of the millions of dollars it cost to build the Special Court would have been better allocated to citizens to alleviate the immediate damage of the war.
During the trial, the prosecution has former RUF soldiers testify against Sesay, sometimes paying their expenses and relocating them for their protection. Prosecutor David Crane admits that testimony from former RUF soldiers is problematic but necessary, likening it to “dancing with the devil.”
With conviction looming, the defense lays out what it considers Sesay’s mitigating circumstances. When RUF leader Foday Sankoh was arrested and imprisoned at the end of the war, Sesay became the interim leader. Pressured by principals of neighboring West African countries to disarm the RUF, he ended the civil war without further bloodshed – and without negotiating a deal for his own amnesty. The Special Court subsequently sentences Sesay to 52 years in prison.
Following his own trial and the conclusion of WAR DON DON, Sesay has been in the news again, testifying at The Hague (along with Naomi Campbell and Mia Farrow, among others) in the trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor. In his testimony, Sesay continues to attempt to assert his voice as the Special Court writes a history of the Sierra Leone conflict.
Today, Sierra Leone is a peaceful nation, but after two successful democratic elections, it remains the third-poorest country in the world.
Rebecca Richman Cohen, who is a Harvard Law School graduate and has a background in human rights and criminal defense, was a legal intern for the defense team on another case in the Special Court of Sierra Leone during the trial of Issa Sesay. She says, “I hope WAR DON DON offers an insider’s view about the complex moral, political and legal questions that issue from rebuilding lawless and war-torn nations – and will inspire thoughtful debate about the future of international criminal justice.”
WAR DON DON is directed and produced by Rebecca Richman Cohen; produced and edited by Francisco Bello; executive produced by Jim Butterworth and David Menschel; co-producer, Daniel Chalfen; composer, Max Avery Lichtenstein.