By Amin Kef Sesay
Seasoned and highly respected legal luminary, Abdulai O. Conteh, who served as Sierra Leone’s one time Attorney General and now a retired Chief Justice of Belize is leading the defence team for Major (Rtd) Alfred Palo Conteh who is facing charges of treason at the Freetown High Court.
When the treason trial came up on the 21st May 2020 , Lead Counsel, Lawyer Abdulai O. Conteh, objected to the representation of the Attorney General (A.G) and Minister of Justice, Priscilla Schwartz and Adrian Fisher respectively, to prosecute the alleged treason matter on behalf of the State.
According to Lawyer Conteh, Prosecutor Adrian Fisher is not duly enrolled as a legal practitioner in the country, let alone to issue out an indictment on behalf of his client.
He stoutly objected to the indictment prepared by Lawyer Fisher, which was signed by the A.G. The lead Defense Counsel also told the Court that the Attorney General was not properly appointed as she was not qualified by the time of her appointment to serve in such a position, and therefore should not have signed the indictment.
Conteh told the Court that for someone to qualify to be appointed as A.G, the person must have practiced for 20 years as a lawyer, which he doubted with regards to the A.G’s tenure in the Bar.
In that light, the Defense Counsel applied for Palo Conteh to be discharged, for duplication of charges and also failure to highlight the appropriate sections by the State Counsel.
Responding to the Counsel for the Defense, the Lead State Prosecutor, Priscilla Shwartz (AG), disclosed that she was qualified to serve as A.G, as she was enrolled into the Sierra Leone Bar in 1996, contrary to 1998 put forward by the Defense.
The State Prosecutor maintained that all the sections and charges highlighted in their indictment are in place for all three accused persons, with no duplication and no wrong section. In his ruling, Justice Momo-Jah Stevens said the issues dealing with the eligibility of the A.G and Lawyer Fisher, must be directed to the Supreme Court. He ruled that all the charges in the file are in place and are in order.
The State is alleging that on 19th March 2020, Palo Conteh, former Minister of Internal Affairs under APC, attempted to assassinate the President of Sierra Leone Julius Maada Bio, at State House, during a meeting with him, whilst the second accused Saa Anthony Sinnah and third accused Prince George Hughes abetted the said crime in Contravention of Regulations 31 of the Arms and Ammunition Act of 2014.
The accused were charged with 16 counts with bulk of the charges directed to Alfred Palo Conteh in relation to treason offences, contrary to Section 3 Sub-Section (1)b of the Treason and State Offences Act of 1963 as amended.
Addressing the Jury, the A.G assured them the State will prove all of the alleged charges against the accused by the end of the trial. The atmosphere was tense, with massive security presence in and out of the court room.
The perimeter of the Courts was also flooded with Sierra Leone Police, military and Correctional Officers with armoured personnel carriers outside the court. Prior to the commencement of the trial proper, Justice Stevens advised the three accused to nominate two legal practitioners each to represent them and for the charges to be read by the Court Registrar to the accused. Palo Conteh only pleaded not guilty to two of the charges but remained mute on the remaining other charges, after seeking the attention of his legal representative.
Lawyer representing Palo Conteh, Abdulai O. Conteh, had a different view. According to him the lawyers should first announce their representation before the charges are put to the accused. That situation was however resolved amicably between the counsels and the Judge.
The trial which is by jury, had a handful of observers from members of the public with the courtroom being dominated by security personnel. Prior to the empanelling of the jury, all three accused objected to some jurors, who were later replaced.
Alfred Palo Conteh, who was dressed in a dark English suit with reading glasses on his face look relaxed throughout the process. The trial which started in a very tense atmosphere soon became very calm and friendly at the end.
Abdulai O, Conteh, Joseph F. Kamara and Amadu Koroma, were part of the Defense team, while the AG, the Director of Public Prosecution Easmon N’Gaqui and Adrian Fisher represented the State.
Justice Momo-Jah Stevens remanded all the three accused persons and urged the Correctional Officers to treat them humanely and grant their legal team access to visit them. He then adjourned the matter to Tuesday 26th May 2020.