The sin is not what the country may have known about plans to overthrow the (illegal) government of Sierra Leone. The real crime is different: Britain voted in favour of a United Nations arms embargo which made it difficult for the rightful government of the country legally to seize control once more.
Paradoxically, Britain may have taken a moral action - but illegally, and therefore is unable to defend it publicly. Bruce George, Labour chairman of the Commons defence select committee, noted yesterday: "The right thing happened in the end. An illegitimate government was ousted and a legitimate government was re-established." Which is true enough, although it is a much more robust defence of the end result than can be heard from the Foreign Office.
While the junta was still in power in Freetown, Britain made clear its support for the ousted government - including inviting President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah to the Commonwealth summit in Edinburgh at the end of last year. But it found itself stymied by the UN arms embargo, unable officially to support a forcible change of government back to the status quo ante. The result is confusion, with a government unwilling to be open about its involvement, let alone defend it.
British officials have been ready to put bizarre pressure on journalists not to publish details of the country's involvement, using phrases like "between you and your conscience". That phrase can make sense when human life might be put at risk by the publication of a story. In this case, the only risk was to the Government's self-esteem. Nobody has suggested it acted evilly, merely that it broke the rules it had helped to create.
The ironies of the removal of the military junta of Major Johnny Paul Koroma were already clear enough, even as the junta was driven out in February. Nigerian troops led the West African peacekeeping force which helped to drive out the old regime. The Nigerians - the pariah state of the Commonwealth - insisted that there was no contradiction in helping to restore democracy in Sierra Leone while at the same time denying all possibility of democracy at home.
Now there is a double irony, as the British government, which has been one of the sharpest critics of General Sanni Abacha's regime in Nigeria and one of the strongest supporters of President Kabbah, finds itself embarrassed by its own connection with the return of democracy. It feels unable to defend itself by pointing to the end result.
Sierra Leone was only just emerging from a prolonged civil war when the military seized power from the elected government in May 1997. Human rights organisations were unanimous in condemning the junta. Amnesty International talked of a "complete collapse" of the rule of law. Arbitrary arrests, torture and killings were routine.
The retreating forces of Major Koroma's Armed Forces Revolutionary Council are reported still to be carrying out atrocities in the east, including limbs chopped off civilians.
President Kabbah may be no angel but he is much better than what went before. His government has made commitments to respect human rights. Supporters of the military regime have been charged with treason and murder, but Amnesty believes that "proper procedures" are being followed.Reuse content