Fallen Sankoh

Ex-leader of Sierra Leone rebels on trial but insists he's still in power

June 6, 2002


FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) _ His hair and beard in unkempt white dreadlocks, Sierra Leone's once mighty and feared rebel leader appears today to hover on the verge of madness _ but insists he's still at the pinnacle of power.

"I'm a god," the handcuffed former warlord, Foday Sankoh, said Wednesday at the Freetown high court where he's standing trial for murder. "I'm the inner god. I'm the leader of Sierra Leone."

Sankoh is being tried along with 49 other rebels of his Revolutionary United Front for the deaths of 22 peace protesters in shooting outside his home in the capital on May 8, 2000. Together they face 70 counts, including murder, conspiracy to murder and shooting with intent to kill.

Wednesday's proceedings were adjourned until July 10 to give prosecutors time to prepare indictments against the accused.

If convicted, Sankoh could face the death penalty, Judge Patrick Hamilton said.

Sankoh denied all charges during preliminary questioning in a lower court, but has not entered a formal plea.

Prosecutors say Sankoh is fit to stand trial.

However, asked repeatedly by journalists who his lawyer was, Sankoh first said he couldn't understand the question, then said he didn't know.

Frail-looking in a pale yellow African robe, the former rebel chief climbed slowly up the courtroom steps gripping a handrail for support, surrounded by a dozen unarmed policemen.

As Sankoh was leaving, his daughter, Mbalu Sankoh, trailed him in tears saying, "It's me daddy. It's me."

Appearing puzzled, Sankoh replied simply, "Oh." Then after a pause, he kissed her extended hand and smiled.

Two months ago, the rebel leader was examined _ both physically and psychologically _ by local doctors at the request of his lawyer, Edo Okanya.

Doctors prescribed the rebel chief drugs for high blood pressure and other minor ailments, but nothing for his mental state, Okanya said.

Okanya said Sankoh may have suffered from being isolated for two years without access to family or friends, but insisted his client's mental health was "very sound."

"He's still living in his imaginary world," Okanya said of Sankoh. "Maybe it stems from the fact that he led a very long revolutionary war, and he could never believe he'd have to be facing what he's facing now under the grip of the authorities."

Sankoh's medical records are confidential, and authorities have refused to provide details of his health in custody.

Sankoh, a former wedding photographer, launched his rebel war in 1991 with the aim of taking over the West African nation and its lucrative diamond fields.

The rebels quickly gained notoriety for their brutal tactics, killing, raping, maiming and kidnapping tens of thousands of civilians.

"The rebels would line everybody up and start chopping. This man's left hand, this man's right hand, this man, both hands," said Alpha Bockerie, who lost his leg in a bomb blast during fighting in the capital in January 1998.

"Even if they kill (Sankoh), it's not going to pay for all what they done to our country. They wreaked havoc on us," he said at a camp for war amputees.

Sankoh is expected to be among those charged by a separate international war crimes tribunal, set up by the government and the United Nations earlier this year. No date has yet been set.

Although Sankoh appears incoherent at times, at others he seemed lucid.

Asked what he thought of the current trial, he said: "Oh, these are just old games."

Copyright 2002 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.