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Professor Labonte reports from Sierra Leone (III): “The Trial”


Assistant Professor of Political Science Melissa Labonte is spending 10 days in Sierra Leone and will send occasional dispatches from there – depending on the reliability of the power supply and her Internet connection.

I don’t want to talk much about the poverty here; it feeds into the essentializing of the national image and, to be honest, I’ve seen similar things in other countries and even in my own neighborhood in Manhattan. But on Friday (May 21), I was stuck in a traffic jam getting into the city center and was struck by the image of two little boys, neither could have been older than five or six years old, walking by the roadside, nearly naked and barefoot, with water-filled jerry cans balanced on their heads. The jerry cans were as tall as they were and must have weighed 30 pounds or more. The sweat was pouring down the sides of their faces. But the minute they saw me passing by the car, they broke into huge smiles and waved. They didn’t ask for money, they didn’t rush to the car to see if I had candy. They just smiled. There’s a lot of dignity in the face of the crushing poverty here.

On Friday, I also spent a good part of the day interviewing staff at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, established in 2001 to try those “bearing the greatest responsibility” for war crimes and crimes against humanity during the latter portion of the civil war. The last of the “group” trials has ended here – the Court is now in the winding down phase – but the final trial it is responsible for involves former Liberian President Charles Taylor. The trial even had to be moved from Freetown to The Hague in the Netherlands for security reasons – and quite understandably, as Taylor is not popular here.

When I rocked up to the Special Court compound, the staff was all abuzz. International media were bombarding my colleague’s office in Public Affairs and Outreach. It seems that Mia Farrow (Darfur uber-activist and the former Mrs. Woody Allen) just turned over to the Court a photo of supermodel Naomi Campbell, who is notorious for assaulting her maid a few years ago, receiving a rough cut “blood” diamond from President Taylor when they both happened to be in South Africa a few years ago. Now, even assuming that Ms. Campbell didn’t understand why President Taylor would want to just “give” her a diamond, or even if she didn’t really know who he was, surely her moral compass would have signaled that there was something very wrong about this exchange? Is she in the habit of receiving massive diamonds from world leaders? Aye carumba!

In any case, the prosecution is now seeking to subpoena her to testify and she is having none of it, reacting most unpleasantly to media inquiries. Anger management has never been one of her strong suits, apparently. Ms. Farrow has already said she’ll happily testify. Lesson here: don’t get on Mia Farrow’s bad side.

All joking aside, Taylor single-handedly did more to destroy Sierra Leone than any other person. If this evidence helps ensure that justice is carried out, it can only be a good thing for Sierra Leoneans. I’m going back to the Court to interview the deputy prosecutor next week. By then, a decision should be rendered on whether Naomi will have to book a ticket to The Hague.


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