By Janet A Sesay
Lawyers representing Alfred Paolo Conteh have opened their case by calling their first witness, Alfred Paolo Conteh himself who is standing trial on a charge of treason.
It is a normal requirement in law that when a no-case submission fails, the defence begins its case by calling witness and tendering exhibits in evidence to prove the innocence of a client.
Led by the lead defence counsel, Dr Abdulai O. Conteh, The accused Paolo Conteh testified in a rather heated emotion and eventually shed tears and other court attendees including journalists cried too.
The cry of Paolo Conteh generated an atmosphere of sorrow which swept through the court making some government officials including the Attorney-General to leave the court for a short moment.
The accused, Paolo Conteh was however consoled by the presiding judge so that he could compose himself and tell the exact story of what transpired between himself and the presidential guards at State House.
In his testimony, Mr Paolo Conteh told the court that he was a Military officer, barrister and politician. Mr Conteh said he served the army for 16 years and rose to the rank of Major.
Between 2007 and 2014, he went on, he was Minister of Defence and from 2014 to 2015 the then president reassigned him to lead the fight against the Ebola Virus Disease.
He also testified that from 2015 to 2017 he was appointed Minister of Internal Affairs and in 2018 he was moved back to the ministry of Defence as minister.
“I gained valuable experience during the fight against Ebola Virus,” he testified.
In May 2018, Paolo Conteh said he had a break from politics and went to United Kingdom where he, said he spent seven months and later returned to Sierra Leone in the same year.
He said his return to Sierra Leone was to answer to the call by the Commission of Inquiry, a body set up to investigate the activities of past government of former President Koroma.
He further told the court that when he was Minster of Defence and Internal Affairs, he had personal security guards who were withdrawn from him immediately after the 2018 general elections.
“The withdrawal of security personnel from me is not the usual practice at the Ministry of Defence,” he said.
The withdrawal of the guards, he said, made him to go for a weapon for his personal protection owing to the fear of being attacked by some ex-combatants who, he said, attacked him once when he was Minister of Defence.
Apart from the attack from the former fighters, the accused continued, he had earned the enmity of ‘Clique Guys,’ and commercial motorists who he had once taken off the streets of the central business districts to restore discipline in the country.
On Monday 16 March this year, the accused said, he received a telephone call from the Minister of Finance Jacob Jusu Saffa that the President invited him to a meeting that would take at 3pm at State House.
The accused replied that he was willing and happy to attend the meeting as he saw the invitation as recognition of his good work in the past government and an opportunity to serve and protect his motherland from a deadly and devastating virus.
He said in a response to the President’s invitation, he drove to State House on 16 March this year.
On his arrival at State House, he said, he was recognised by some security personnel who ticked his name on the list and ushered to the Car park at the back of State House.
He further testified that he did not see anyone at the parking lot, and he came out of the vehicle with his brown bag containing the Glock-17 pistol in readiness to attend the meeting.
He said he went through the front door to the reception area at the first floor of State House building and the security personnel ticked his name directed him to the second floor where, he said, he met another set of security personnel.
He said he was also directed to the waiting room for the meeting to commence.
At the meeting, he went on, he met the Chief Minister, Minister of Heath as well as some officials he worked with during the Ebola crisis.
The accused also testified that President Julius Maada Bio arrived few minutes later and the meeting commenced.
During the meeting, he said, he was commended by the President who asked him to make a statement.
“I thanked the president as it was the right decision, and assured him of a 110% support to the fight against Covid-19 without asking for any salary or bonus,” he testified.
During the meeting, the told the court, the President requested for a draft strategic policy for the fight against Covid-19 and that it must be ready in 48 hours.
At this point, the accused testified, the Minister of Health requested that they should meet at the Health Ministry at Youyi Building the next day to prepare the policy.
Mr Conteh said he accepted to meet the Minister of Health the next day and he returned home after the meeting.
He was at home, he further testified, when he received several calls from many people expressing comments about his meeting with the President.
Some callers, he said, were happy that he joined the fight against Covid-19 while few others were displeased of him for joining the fight, but he said, he stood on his personal thought as a committed patriot.
He also testified that on Tuesday 17march, this year, he attended the meeting at the Ministry of Health where they were divided into two groups for the planning of the Covid-19 campaign.
After the meeting with the Minster, he said, they divided themselves into two teams.
The one team went to Bintumani hotel to draft the policy while the other team of which he was a member went to Lungi Airport to put protocols in place with regards disembarking passengers visiting Sierra Leone.
He said some passengers were quarantined at the airport hotel from a flight that touched down on that day.
Some issues, he said, were sorted out and they returned to Freetown at 8pm with no food provided on that day.
On Thursday 19 March this year, the accused told the court that he received a call from his former Chief of staff at the National Ebola Response Centre, Brigadier-General Taluva that there would be another meeting at 9am at State house as the draft policy document requested by the president was ready for presentation.
The accused said he got himself ready and drove to state house for the meeting.
He said he reached State House at 8am and his name was also ticked by security personnel at the main gate.
He said he drove to the car park at the back of state House, and was looking for a place to park his vehicle when five young men came and directed him where to park.
Immediately he parked his car, he said, one of the boys requested him to wash his vehicle, and he accepted.
“I took out the bag containing the pistol, and closed the car leaving the boys to wash it while I proceeded to State House,” the accused testified.
He said, he went to the reception area, but did not put his bag on the scanner.
The accused also testified that he passed by the side of the metal detector and went straight to the security desk where he said he handed over the brown bag containing the pistol for safe keeping.
He said the officers told him to go with the bag telling him not worry about anything.
The accused replied them that he could not go with the bag because he had his personal pistol in there, and he handed over the bag to them.
“No one challenged and intercepted me and no one said a word to me,” the accused told the court.
He said the security officers directed him at the waiting room upstairs after handing over the bag as the meeting was about to commence.
About an hour while at the waiting room with other dignitaries, he went on, Lieutenant-Colonel Kposowa accompanied by a female officer and Superintendent Mohamed Kuba Allieu met him there holding the brown bag.
Paolo Conteh further testified that Lt. Col. Kposowa asked him if he was the owner of the brown bag, and he answer him in the affirmative.
He said Kposowa also asked him if there was a weapon in the bag and also answered him yes.
“The weapon in the bag is my personal weapon, it is licensed, and I voluntarily declare it at the reception centre,” he said.
Mr Conteh told the court that Kposowa counted the ten rounds in the magazine holding the bag which he searched.
The accused told the court that he opened the other side pocket of the bag and brought out a valid license dated 20th March, 2020 issued by the Small Arms Commission.
“Lt Col. Colonel Kposowa told the other dignitaries in the room that I would not attend the meeting, and he handed me over to the officers of the Criminal Investigation Department,” the accused testified.
The accused said he was taken into another room at State House where statements were obtained from him for over an hour on the allegation of unlawful possession of small arms.
He said he was released after the interview went into his car and drove home feeling disappointed.
The accused also told the court at 5pm of the same day, he was at home when Supt. M.K Allieu told him to report at the CID headquarters to collect his weapon and his bag.
Upon such information, he said, he drove to the CID where, he said, he met Supt. Allieu who later decided not to handover the bag and the weapon until he got instructions from the Inspector-General of Police.
On the same day, the accused told the court, he returned home
On Friday 20th March, this year, the accused went on; he got a call again from Supt. Allieu enquiring where he was at that moment.
He said he replied that he was at home and Supt Allieu later told him that he was at his gate waiting for him.
He said since he did not have security personnel, he went to the gate and opened it and Supt Allieu with other personnel came into his compound with a vehicle and showed him a search warrant.
“They thoroughly searched my house and nothing of police interest was found and they took his personal computer and they invited him to CID headquarters and I accompanied them,” he testified.
Mr Conteh told the court that he was interviewed for the second time on the same allegation of unlawful possession of firearms.
After the interview, he said, Supt Allieu issued him a warrant of arrest and was taken to the lock-up where he spent the night.
On the next day, he said, he was transferred to the Pa Demba Male Correctional facility.
The accused further told the court on 24th March he was re-interviewed on the allegation of unlawful possession of fire arms.
On 26th March, he was interview again on the allegation of small arms and treasonable offences saying that he had no such intention.
He said the final interview was conducted on 29th March and the same allegations were put to him and responded that the allegations were “baseless and untrue.”
“I was shocked because I have no grudge against the President and I have no intention to assassinate him,” the accused told the court.
“How can a 63-year old man having a single weapon kill the President surrounded by fifty security personnel with AK-47 rifles,” the accused wondered. The accused further told the court that he had no such intention as the relationship between him and the President as former soldiers was very cordial.
Testifying on the steps taken to possess his weapons, he explained that he had license for Glock-21 and Glock-17 noting that he followed the normal procedure of obtaining the licences.
The accused denied the allegation of importing weapons into the country and that he had never given false statements on oath as alleged by the prosecution.
He ended his testimony that the charge of treason brought against by the state made him disappointed, deflated and disillusioned as he put it: “I did not expect such a charge.”
Adrian Fisher applied for a date to cross examine the accused based on his testimony.
The matter comes up on 23rd June.