The people who sent me to Africa to observe a trial there must have thought ‘the boy done good’ because the next year I was sent again, to a country where a coup had been thwarted. Not only had the usual suspects been rounded up, but so, seemingly, had anyone else on whom the police could lay their hands when there was a demonstration against the government.
I arrived on an overnight plane and had been booked a room. The taxi driver was severe. ‘You don’t go there,’ he said and drove me instead to a place he insisted was still top-class – but wasn’t.
The trials I was to watch mostly featured students, two of whom seemed to me to have been very harshly treated. They had been on a demonstration when a middle-aged American pair whom they knew as students had been trapped in their car by the crowd. They had got to the car, sat on the bonnet and made sure the Americans drove safely home. The Americans came to court to give evidence, saying they thought the boys had saved their lives.
Unfortunately, I never got to hear what they said. I was sitting peacefully taking notes when the judge asked me who I was and what I was doing. I told him and he said I had to get permission from the chief justice first. By the time I had returned with my piece of paper after seeing him – ‘Oh God, Morton, they think they are doing what I want and I do not’ – the Americans had given their evidence. It did no good. Presence not participation was the key to a conviction. Five years.
There were far too many trials for me to see at any length. They were impeccably conducted. The defence could cross-examine, call witnesses, have short adjournments, but they were all going to be convicted – and they were. I like to think that I made a difference. If I was seen at part of a trial the accused got five years and the ones I didn’t manage got six.
I must have been considered ineffective and innocuous. The next man sent out to watch a subsequent series of trials was arrested on arrival and deported on the midnight plane.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor