Treason trial – Palo Conteh speaks as defence opens its case

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 20 June 2020:

The central allegation by the State against Major Alfred Palo Conteh is that he committed treason when he entered a public place – State House on 19th March 2020, with a gun, allegedly intended to kill the president at a meeting.

Alfred Palo Conteh is charged with 13 counts of Treason, contrary to Section 3(1)(b) of the Treason and State Offences Act No. 10 of 1963, “TSOA” (AS AMENDED); (“TSOA”) – Counts 1 & 2; Treason, contrary to section 4(a), of the Treason and State Offences Act No. 10 of 1963, (AS AMENDED) – Count 3; Possession of a Small Arm without a Valid License, contrary to Section 11(1) of the Arms and Ammunition Act, No. 9 of 2012 – Counts 5 & 6; Possession of a Small Arm without a Valid License, contrary to the Arms and Ammunition Act, No. 9 of 2012 –  Count 7; Importation of a Small Arm Without a Permit – contrary to Section 16(1) of the Arms and Ammunitions Regulations 2014 – Count 8; Concealing Arms Unlawfully, contrary to Regulation 22 of the Arms and Ammunitions Regulations 2014 – Count 9; Keeping a Greater Number of Small Arms than is specified in a License, contrary to Regulation 29(1) of the Arms and Ammunitions Regulations 2014 – Count 10; Having a Loaded Small Arm in a Public Place, contrary to Regulation 32(1) of the Arms and Ammunitions Regulations 2014 – Count 11; and Making a False Statement on Oath Otherwise than in a Judicial Proceedings, contrary to Section 2(1) of the Perjury Act 1911 – Count 14, 15 & 16.

But for the State to convince the jury that Palo Conteh is guilty of committing treason which is punishable by death by hanging, the State must prove beyond reasonable doubt that: Palo had intended to kill the president; there was opportunity for Palo to kill the president and that Palo had a motive for wanting to kill the president as alleged.

According to report filed by Sierra Leone Telegraph Court Correspondent, opening the case on behalf of Palo Conteh (First Accused), Lead Counsel – Dr Abdulai Conteh, yesterday told the High Court:  “On behalf of the first accused, we want to thank the jury. We have reached the stage where the 1st accused if he chooses can give evidence on his own behalf, but he is not oblige to do so or he can stand from the dock and ask the prosecution to prove his innocence. But in this case the accused choose to testify.

“He has been charged with three counts of treason offences, seven counts under the Small Arms Commission Act and two counts of perjury. He has no burden to prove his innocence. The prosecution has called thirteen witnesses and there has been no evidence to prove the charges against the accused.

“We heard from the prosecution that the first accused was at State House on the 19th March 2020 with a B17 gun and therefore it amounts to treason. We will give evidence as to how the gun came to be in State House on the 19th March 2020.

“The whole of the prosecution case is based on the circumstances in which the gun was found in State House. They have not led evidence that the first accused went to State House with the B17 with the necessary intent to harm the president. To have B17 or any kind of gun at State House is not treason.

“The first accused will give evidence as to how his brown bag containing the gun was found at State House and how he voluntarily handed his bag pronouncing “that is my bag containing my personal weapon.” The prosecution claims he wanted to assassinate the president, we say no there was no such intent.

“Much heavy weather has been made of the scanning machine at State House. The prosecution says the first accused failed to go through the scanning machine. One of the prosecution witnesses testified that there is a CCTV camera which records what is going on in the surrounding of State House and the footage of the CCTV is recorded.  An application was made by the Defence for the production of the footage on the 19 March 2020 which would have shown this court and members of the jury beyond speculation what happened at State House, particularly the sensitive area. This recording is in the possession of the State. It would have beyond reasonable doubt shown this court what happened on the 19 March 2020.

“But this CCTV footage has not been produced by the State. There was also an application for this court to visit the locus sight of the scene. The Judge said the visit will be made at the close of the defence case.

“Members of the jury, the case of the Defence is that on an invitation by the President, he visited State House on that day in response to the fight against the deadly Covid-19 pandemic and regrettably stands here today charged with treason.

“On his visit he had with him his brown bag which contained his personal weapon, he went to the security handed his bag voluntarily, pronouncing “it contains my personal weapon keep it for me”. Is that the conduct of a person with the intent to assassinate the president? We say no, he went to visit the president with no malicious intent but just to answer the call on national duty. He (Palo Conteh) will tell this court why he was invited on the second visit.

“The police were not investigating any case of treason but offence under the small arms, but with advice from the Law Officer Department they changed the investigation from offences under the Small Arms Act to treason. The charge of treason was an afterthought.

“In so far as the offences under the Small Arms are concerned members of the jury, not an iota, not one peck of evidence has been shown before this court to show that the first accused committed these offences. You the members of the jury are not judges of speculation but of fact, and there has been no evidence that the weapon had no valid license or the weapon was concealed.

“He has also been charged with perjury and perjury is making a statement on oath but in this case he made a statement on the application form for the renewal of his license which contain no clause that what he is writing is true. In fact from one of the prosecution witness she said that there is no oath administered when filling application form. How can filling an application form for small arms amount to perjury?

“My Lord with the leave of the court may I call the first accused to take the witness stand.”

At this point in the proceedings, Mr Palo Conteh gave his personal details, including his name, home address, and occupation which he gave as – Barrister and politician

“I served the country under the military for 16 years. During the course of my service, I rose to the rank of Major,” Mr Conteh said.

“Did you serve your country in any other capacity?,” Dr Abdulai Conteh asked Palo Conteh, to which Palo replied: “In 2007 to 2014, I was the Minister of Defense. From 2014  to December 2015, the then president assigned me to lead the fight against the Ebola virus. From March 2016 to the end of 2017 I was appointed the minister of internal affairs. In 2018, I was reassigned as minister of defense until after the 2018 elections.”

“During your time of service, fighting the Ebola virus, you gained valuable experience in the field of fighting the pandemic disease?,” Dr Abdulai Conteh asked Palo. “Yes,” Palo replied.

“And in 2018 you ceased to be the minister of defense?,” Dr Abdulai Conteh asked Palo Conteh, to which Palo said “Yes. In May 2018 I took a break from politics and went to the UK, where I used to live, for seven months and came back to Sierra Leone at the end of December 2018 after I heard that there was going to be a commission of enquiry against members of the former government.

“In 2019, what happened or what did you do?,” Dr Abdulai Asked Palo Conteh, “I just kept myself to myself and stayed away from anything that will bring shame to my name,” Palo replied.

“As a minister of defense, did you have security personnel?,” Dr Conteh asked Palo Conteh. “Yes,” Palo Conteh replied. “Are you still enjoying that?,” defence Lawyer Abdulai Conteh asked Palo Conteh, to which Palo replied: “No. After the 2018 election, all my security personnel were withdrawn, which was not the usual practice or norm in the ministry of defence. In the ministry of defence, be it deputy or any senior officer after retirement have at least one security assigned to the former officer.”

“Why did you feel the need to carry a personal weapon?,” Dr Abdulai Conteh asked Palo Conteh. “I needed it to protect myself,” Palo replied. “Why did you need protection from any one?,” Dr Abdula Conteh asked Palo Conteh.

“When I was a minister I was personally attacked by ex-combatants. When I became the minister of internal affairs, I decided to take on the clicks gang and those that called themselves five star generals. I decided to wage war on the unlawfulness and indiscipline especially in the western area. Consequently, I felt the need to carry personal weapon. I also decided to challenge the okada riders in order to bring sanity in the city of Freetown. I was the minister of internal affairs, it was my responsibility to ensure that the nation was safe and secured. I enforced the Road Traffic Regulation by making sure every okada rider possessed a helmet. I was without a single security after the election in 2018, so I decided to have a weapon.”

“In 2020 you had cause to visit State House?,” Dr Abdulai Conteh asked Palo Conteh. “Yes,” Palo replied. “When did you visit State House?,” Dr Conteh asked Palo Conteh, to which Palo replied: “My first visit was on the 16th of March 2020.”

Dr Abdulai Conteh then asked Palo Conteh: “How did you come to State House on that day?,” to which Palo said: “On Monday 16th March at about 12 noon, I received a call from the minister of finance that the president is inviting me to a meeting at State House at 3pm on the same day. He asked whether I will be willing to attend the meeting.”

“Did you know the reason for the meeting?,” Dr Conteh asked Palo Conteh. “Yes it was in relation to the fight against Covid-19,” Palo replied. “What did you bring to the table?,” Dr Abdulai Conteh asked Palo Conteh. “The small knowledge I had on fighting Ebola as I was the Chief Executive officer. I drove to State House that Monday as I was very pleased with myself as my work in the previous government has been recognized. I got to State House at about 2:30 pm for the meeting which was to start at 3pm. At the main gate of State House they recognized me and ticked my name on the list and waved me in. I drove to the car park at the back of State House.

Dr Abdulai Conteh interjected: “Did you drive alone?” Palo Conteh replied: “Yes. I found myself in the parking lot and parked my car, I looked around and didn’t notice anyone at the car park.”

“What did you do in a deserted car park?,” Dr Abdulai Conteh asked Palo. “I had my brown bag containing my B17, because the car park was quiet I decided to drop my bag behind the driver’s seat as the back of my car window are tinted, I got off my car, locked and headed for State House building. I went through the front door to the reception area on the 1st floor, went to the security desk where they had a piece of paper  and my name was ticked off.

“I was directed to go into the office of the Director of state protocol to wait until the president was ready for the meeting to commence. After a while of waiting, I was asked to go to the conference room on the second floor where there were seated a host of personalities invited to the meeting. Few minutes later his Excellency the President was ushered in and the meeting commenced.”

“What was the outcome of the meeting?,” Dr Conteh asked Palo. “The president made an opening statement, then he invited me and my team to share our experience during the fight against Ebola. I was asked by the president to make a statement. In my statement I made two points: 1. I commended his Excellency for inviting me and the Ebola team and said that was the right decision. 2. I assured his Excellency that I will give my usual 100 percent support without any remuneration as it was going to be pro bono to the public. After my statement, the President in concluding gave a number of directives: 1. That the ministry of health and sanitation should draft a strategic plan and 2. That he wanted the draft strategy and policy to be ready in 48 hours in the military style.

Mr Palo Conteh continued:  “The following day, which was March 17, I attended a meeting at the ministry of health and sanitation and the planning started for the fight against Covid-19. We were then divided into groups. One team was to be housed at the Bintumani hostel to draft the policy strategy for the Covid-19. I was asked by the Minister of health to travel to Lungi immediately after the meeting on a hired boat. I was to check on  passengers who were quarantined at Lungi hotel as they have been complaining through social media about the amenities at the hotel. The Chief Minister later joined us. Most of the issues were sought out and we came back to Freetown at about 8pm on the same day. No food was provided but I considered it a national call.

“On the 19th March 2020, I received a call from the former chief of staff of the national Ebola response center – Major David Taluva that the draft document has been requested by His Excellency and that he was ready for presentation. I got myself ready and drove to State House. I got there at about 8:30am. My name was again ticked at the main gate. I went to the car park. Whilst looking for parking lot I saw about four or five young men who were chasing my car, one of them said please sir “cam park ya” which I duly obliged to. I got off my car and then one of them said to me please sir “we wan wass you motorcar”; and I nodded saying – I didn’t mind for the him to wash it. Because of their presence around my car I took a decision that I don’t think it will be necessary to leave my bag containing my B17.

“I then took my brown bag, locked the car and proceeded to State House. I got to the reception area at first floor, I didn’t put my bag on the scanner neither did I walk through the metal detector. Instead, I walked by the side of the metal detector heading straight to the security desk. While at it, no one questioned me, no one challenged me, no one said a word to me. I got to the security desk at the reception area where a man and a woman were seated.”

“Do you remember their names?,” Dr Abdulai Conteh interjected. “No. I held my brown bag in front of them and said keep this for me. And one of them said – no sir “take u bag upstairs”. And then I commented, “no, this bag contains my personal weapon”. One of them took the bag from me, after I said it contains my personal weapon. I was then allowed to go upstairs.”

“Do you know what happened to the bag at that time?,” Dr Conteh asked Palo Conteh, to which Palo replied: “No alarm was raised by any of the security personnel. After I left my bag I went to the second floor where the office of the president is. There was another security who directed me to the office of the state chief protocol.

“Were you the only one who attended the meeting?,” Dr Abdulai Conteh asked Palo Conteh. “No there were others. We chatted and about an hour later Lieutenant Colonel Kposowa walked into the room with my bag in his hand.  He was with one female and about three or four male officers. One of them was Superintendent MK Allieu who has been investigating since Jacob was a child.

“Colonel Kposowa said that there is a weapon in the bag, I replied saying yes, it is my personal weapon, and I voluntarily declared it at the reception and that was why I left it downstairs. I then said that I have a valid license for the weapon. Whilst he was holding the bag, I then unzipped the zip at the side of the bag, brought out the valid license issued by the Small Arms Commission to carry that B 17 and the said license was valid from March 2020-2021. Colonel Kposowa then said to the people in the room “make ar nor see am na social media oo” and further said please sir you will not be attending the meeting and that you will be interviewed by the CID. Kposowa then handed the bag with the magazine and the B 17 to MK Allieu and his team.

Lawyer Abdulai Conteh then asked Palo: “How long did your interview last?,” to which Palo replied: “Over an hour and the allegation was unlawful possession of a firearm.”

“Were you arrested or detained at the end of the interview?,” Dr Abdulai Conteh asked Palo Conteh, to which Palo replied: “After the interview, I was released to go home, I then drove home. On the same Thursday at about 5pm, while I was home, Superintendent Allieu called me to say that I should return to the CID headquarters to pick up my weapon and my bag. I drove to the CID to meet him, he then left me in one of the offices and after about ten minutes he came back and said to me, ‘we will release your bag and weapon tomorrow after talking to the inspector General of Police’. I drove back home.

“On Friday 20th March 2020, at about lunch time, Superintendent Allieu called my mobile phone and enquired where I was, I replied I was home. Superintendent Allieu then said I am outside your gate. Since I have no security personnel I proceeded to open the gate. SP Allieu was in his vehicle and the vehicle drove in and there was a second vehicle with armed OSD personnel. He showed me what looked like a warrant. They then searched my entire house and after a thorough search, there was nothing discovered that was of interest.

“After the search, my personal computer was taken away. Detective Allieu then invited me to the CID headquarters. I drove my car to the CID where I was interviewed for the second time and the allegation was unlawful possession of a firearm. SP Allieu whipped out an arrest warrant, I was then locked up at the CID for the night on the 20th March. The next day I was moved to the Central Prison at Pademba road.

“The next interview was on the 24th March, the allegation that was again put to me was unlawful possession of fire arms offences. There was another interview on the 26th of March, the allegation was on small arms offences and treasonable offenses. My response to that was “God Forbid.” The final interview was on the 29th of March 2020 and the same allegations were put to me and my response was that they were baseless and untrue. I am still in solitary confinement for the past three months”.

Dr Abdulai Conteh then said to Palo Conteh: “The allegations before you in the indictment is that you prepared to carry out by force an enterprise to assassinate the president of this country?” Palo Conteh answered: “ That is absolutely not true. I deny all the treason charges against me.”

“It is further alleged that you were without a valid license for the B17,” Dr Abdulai Conteh put it to Palo Conteh, to which Palo said: “I have a valid license which is valid from the 3rd March 2020 to March 2021.”

Dr Abdulai Conteh also said to Palo: “You are also accused of concealing B17 and that you imported small arms without permission,” to which Palo replied: “Never in my life have I imported any weapon. I got my very first personal weapon in 2017.”

“You are accused of being in possession of loaded weapon,” Dr Abdulai Conteh put it to Palo Conteh.  “My gun was not loaded and I say this with absolute conviction,” Palo Conteh replied.

“You are accused of making a false statement on oath contrary to the Perjury Act. Did you make any oath when filling your application form?,”  Dr Conteh asked Palo Conteh. “No,” Palo replied.

And in his final question for the day, Dr Abdulai Conteh asked Palo Conteh, “How do you feel to be charged with Treason?,” to which Palo – filled with emotion, replied: “I feel distraught, disappointed, deflated and disillusioned.”

The Prosecution then requested for an adjournment as a result of limited time for cross examination. The case was adjourned by Judge Stevens to next Tuesday, 23rd of June, 2020.

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