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Abdulai Conteh and the Judicial Murder of Francis Minah

27 May 2020 at 18:46 | 2498 views

Abdulai Conteh and the Judicial Murder of Francis Minah

By a Retired Judge

When around mid 1987 the treason trial of former Vice President and Minister of Justice, Francis Mishech Minah (photo), and over a dozen others opened before Justice Dunstant Williams in Freetown, the Chief Prosecutor was Abdulai Osman Conteh.

He had been reputed to be a rival of the fast-rising Minah, whose positions Conteh coveted and was subsequently given. Conteh’s hate-filled opening statement at the trial left no one in doubt about the outcome of the case. He looked straight into Minah’s eyes and, pointing his finger at the accused, described him as “Lucifer” and “the very personification of evil.” It was an astonishing outburst that sent a chill through the judges and onlookers.

This incident was brought to mind by a report that Dr. Conteh, now in his late 70s, began his defence of Paolo Conteh, who is facing a more credible charge of treason, with a slew of vacuous objections. His theatricality should be loudly deplored, and he should be reminded of his appalling record every step of the way. In law as in politics, moral considerations apply; though you wouldn’t guess this given the shamelessness of the likes of Dr. Conteh, a shamelessness no doubt fuelled by the conviction that his demented past record is of no consequence in a largely unlettered society.

Well, memory of that travesty of a trial is still fresh in the minds of many of us who witnessed it, day after depressing day of the most cynical and brutal assault on justice and fair play in the history of jurisprudence in this country. I was a magistrate at the time and, like many other legal practitioners, followed the trial closely.

First, a word about the Paolo Conteh case, which is ongoing, but whose basic facts we can outline. He was arrested after entering State House for a scheduled meeting with President Julius Maada Bio armed with a loaded pistol, which he concealed. He pointedly did not declare the weapon to security, and indeed rushed past them with a stamping swagger – weapon in his briefcase – pretending to be in a rush to meet with the President. The meeting had been scheduled two days earlier, following a previous, well-publicised one. What was he thinking? That question may be the only point of real contention. Mr. Conteh rose to the rank of a Major in the army, is said to be a trained lawyer, and was defence minister in the previous governments. He cannot, in other words, claim ignorance of the legal proscription (let’s limit it to that) against carrying unauthorised weapon into the presidential office. If he had forgotten that he was carrying a weapon or that it was illegal to carry an authorised weapon there, he surely would have been reminded of that fact after entering the building, by the security post and scanning machine. They are there primarily for that reason. Mr. Conteh was clearly aware of that, which is why he swaggered his way past them with the pretence that he was running late for a meeting with the President. That was a clear violation. He has now been charged with treason, suggesting that prosecutors are convinced of his real intention. The trial focuses exactly on that point – and also whether he may have accomplices.

Now compare these precise facts with the absurd, fictive offences Mr. Minah was alleged to have committed in 1987. “Francis Misheck Minah on a date unknown,” read the charges that Abdulai Conteh, who curiously holds degrees in law from leading British schools, confected, “between July 1, 1986 and March 23, 1987, in Freetown, incited Jamil Sahid Mohamed and Gabriel Tennyson Kaikai and others unknown to overthrow the Government…” Between July 1986 and March 1987 is almost a year, a bewildering margin made for error. Also: “On a date unknown between July 1, 1986 and Mach 23, 1987, Francis Misheck Minah incited Harouna Vandy Jimmy to solicit and collect contributions in furtherance of the plot…”

Abdulai Conteh conjured these imprecise, outrageously elastic timelines to make sure that Mr. Minah would be denied the benefit of a plausible alibi, eliminating any real defence. Conteh attempted to place Minah on two occasions at Jamil’s house in Freetown. On the first, Minah and his very able lawyers, lead counsel Solomon Berewa and his partner Garvas Betts, provided evidence from immigration officers attesting that Minah was out of the country at the time, and on the other they established that at the precise time that Minah was supposed to be in Jamil’s house he was actually having dinner with the Japanese consul at Bintumani Hotel. No one could establish any real connection between Minah and the sixteen other accused, except that most of them were Mende. “The whole thing is pretty hollow,’’ the Oxford-educated Garvas Betts told The New York Times at the time. ’’I don’t think you can connect some of the characters.”

In his warped brain, Abdulai Conteh connected them, and the notoriously venal judge concurred. “I cannot help but convince myself,” Minah said, “that this is an orchestrated allegation that has been levied against me to get rid of me.” Get rid of him they did. President Ibrahim Babangida flew into Freetown to talk President Joseph Momoh into giving clemency to Minah, but his trip was unsuccessful: Momoh was now bent on rolling out his tribal Ekutay. On 7 October 1989, Minah and four others were hanged at Pademba Road Prison.

Mr. Berewa briefly reflected on this travesty of a trial in his book, A New Perspective on Governance, Leadership, Conflict and Nation-Building in Sierra Leone (2011). During the trial, former President Siaka Stevens, who had recruited Minah into the APC and had also handpicked Momoh as his successor, invited Berewa at his Kabasa Lodge to discuss the ongoing case. “I narrated to him the facts that were alleged against Minah and which formed the basis of the charge,” he wrote. “I proffered my opinion that the allegations were flimsy and preposterous and that it was unlikely that a reasonable jury would convict Minah on those charges,” he wrote. “Siaka Stevens thanked me profusely for agreeing to visit him and for my efforts in defending Minah and wished me success…All throughout the meeting, Stevens looked crestfallen. He expressed his disappointment at what he called Momoh’s stubbornness in proceeding with the case against Minah… He remarked that to prosecute Minah was an act of ingratitude shown by Momoh to Minah, who had been always loyal, hardworking, supportive and helpful to Momoh and Stevens and that Minah did not deserve that treatment.”

Abdulai Conteh needs to reflect on his murderous record before impugning the character of people who are far better human beings than his sorry self. History matters.