Although the nation of Sierra Leone has had an extradition treaty with the United States in effect since 1935, the African country has never complied with a single request for extradition. Until yesterday, that is.
Its government never complied with such requests, one might argue, because there really was no government to speak of. The country descended into failed-statehood shortly after becoming independent in 1961, with an almost totally non-functioning government. It was one of those unfortunate countries where, if you had to call someone in charge, nobody was going to pick up (embassy types would joke that it was because the officials were hiding under their desks from all the bullets flying around). During Liberia’s horrifying civil war in the 1990s, its warlord Charles Taylor took advantage of Sierra Leone’s instability to found a rebel group (funded with Sierra Leone diamonds, and manned with conscripted children) to launch a civil war in Sierra Leone. The corrupt government, which had no real resources due to a resultingly nonexistent economy, couldn’t do much to fight back. A brutal civil war ensued that raged throughout the 90s. A large Nigerian-led UN force finally intervened and restored peace, finally disarming the rebels in 2004.
Following the successful UN intervention, Sierra Leone has started to adopt the rule of law. Leaders of both sides of the war were subjected to UN war crimes tribunals. Democratic elections were held in 2007, and when no presidential candidate won a majority, rather than devolve into violence, the country simply held a runoff election. Important laws protecting public order have since been passed, and enforced.
So yesterday’s extradition is an important step in Sierra Leone’s process of joining the successful nations of the world, by complying with its treaty obligations under international law.
The case began in July of last year, when a cargo plane made an emergency landing at Lungui. The plane was found to contain military weapons and ammunition, as well as more than 600 kilos of cocaine.
Sierra Leone charged 15 people with importing cocaine, pursuant to the National Drug Ace of 2008, and related charges. The new criminal justice procedures were followed, resulting in a trial that ended on Tuesday. After the lengthy trial, Justice Mark Brown sentenced most of the defendants to 5-year jail terms and fines of $1 million.
Three of the defendants, Geraldo Quintana-Perez, Harvey Steven Perez and Alex Romero, were then immediately handed over to FBI agents at the Lungui airport, pursuant to the extradition treaty. All three were wanted in the United States on separate drug-related charges.
Quintana-Perez and Perez are to be arraigned today in the Southern District of New York. The SDNY’s acting U.S Attorney, Lev Dassin, remarked in a press release that “this is the first transfer of defendants from Sierra Leone. We hope that the transfer of these defendants to American custody marks the beginning of a strong partnership between the United States and Sierra Leone in combating the international drug trade, which poses a serious threat to both countries.” DEA acting Administrator Michele Leonhart added that “history is made today.”
The Minister of Information and Communication for Sierra Leone, Ibrahim ben Kargbo, stated that the prison sentences handed down by the Sierra Leone court will be respected by the United States, and that the jail terms for these three defendants will be served in U.S. prisons.
This truly is an important step in Sierra Leone’s journey towards modern statehood, with its government being beholden not only to its own laws, but also to its obligations under international law. The rule of law is perhaps the single most important requirement for a country to succeed, for its economy to prosper, and for its citizens to be protected. Without the certainty that the government will abide by the rules, that agreements will be enforced, and that rights will be protected, a country cannot thrive. Some other countries would do well to watch Sierra Leone’s rapid progress.