by Bridget Tharp '06
International prosecutor Brenda Hollis '68 heard eerily similar accounts of such horrifying experiences from survivor after survivor of the war in West Africa. Those victims who didn't bleed to death or develop a fatal infection as a result of the maiming by the child soldiers or rebels would spend the rest of their lives struggling to remain independent and relearning how to maintain daily tasks without one or both of their hands, feet or limbs. One man told Hollis that he needs his young son to dress him, after bargaining to sacrifice both of his hands in order to spare injury to the boy.
For nearly two decades, Hollis has worked to investigate, indict and prosecute high-ranking officials involved in war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide all over the world. She is the first female chief prosecutor for Sierra Leone, and her work on behalf of the United Nations and the Special Court for Sierra Leone has been instrumental in each of the ad hoc war crimes tribunals in the 1990s, which were the first tribunals established since Nazis were tried at Nuremberg.
Good timing — that's the simple explanation for her success that she offered to BGSU Magazine during a conversation between sessions of the International Law Dialogues at the Chautauqua Institute in August 2012. During her teen years in the sleepy, rural town of McClure, Ohio, it was never clear to Hollis that her career would culminate this way.
"I really had no idea what I was going to do when I left the University," Hollis said. "I have been fortunate in my life that I have been in the right place at the right time to do quite a few very interesting things. But I must say, it was not because of any great planning on my part."
Her first year as a Falcon coincided with the inaugural year of the Honors Program at BGSU, and Hollis remembers that smaller class sizes and discussion-based lessons distinguished her honors courses from the rest of her class schedule all four years.
She was driven by curiosity in no particular direction and filled her bookshelves with textbooks for classes she wasn't even taking. After earning her bachelor's degree in liberal studies and completing a Peace Corps assignment in West Africa, Hollis returned to BGSU to take a few more classes just for fun.
When she was out of work after an early stint in intelligence for the Air Force, she heard about the law school entrance exam at the last minute and still managed to score high enough to earn a spot at the University of Denver. She re-entered the Air Force as an attorney with the Judge Advocate General Corps, and spent most of her military career as a criminal prosecutor.
Because of her extensive experience as an Air Force prosecutor, she was one of about 20 American government personnel loaned in 1994 to the newly established Yugoslav Tribunal. She was a prosecutor on the case in 1996 when the court became the first in history to define rape as torture. The Yugoslav Tribunal was also the first international court in which women were actively considered for positions as judges and prosecutors.
But the phenomenon of fortunate timing ends there.
It was an impeccable reputation and years of work behind the scenes that landed Hollis at the Special Court. Hollis continues to serve there, to bring justice to those who bear the greatest responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the West African nation of Sierra Leone.
In May 2012, warlord and former Liberian president Charles Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in prison for the events in Sierra Leone. He is the first former head of state to be convicted of war crimes since World War II. Hollis endured as the longest serving attorney on the Taylor case, and led the entirety of the courtroom proceedings. Taylor has appealed his conviction.
The Taylor case was an important topic in August 2012 at the International Law Dialogues, which typically draws dozens of prosecutors, diplomats, and human rights advocates to gather to discuss the proceedings of each of the international tribunals during the previous year. The sixth annual event offered a unique opportunity to celebrate the Special Court's work of the past 10 years, taking place so soon after the Taylor decision. It was also a farewell of sorts, because the Special Court will be replaced with a Residual Court following Taylor's appeal.
Hollis took the stage for a forum with the three other world-renowned prosecutors, each of whom had led the prosecution office of the Special Court for Sierra Leone during different phases of the investigation and subsequent trial of Taylor. The event held historical significance as the first forum in which each prosecutor of a single tribunal contributed to a collective retrospective of the trial.
There were stories told with great style and brio. There were recollections of the difficulties of assembling a legal office in a crumbling building ruined by bullets, the frustration during months of pushing Nigerian leadership to stop harboring the top suspect, and frequent playful jabs directed at a familiar face in the audience.
But most memories had the same common thread: Brenda Hollis was there.
"She will deny it and say, 'It's a team.' But the Charles Taylor trial was Brenda Hollis's trial," said Greg Peterson, founder of the Robert H. Jackson Center, an archival center established in honor of the first American appointed as an international prosecutor. "She created that continuity . . . more than anybody from beginning to end."
Taylor deserves to be remembered as "Africa's Hitler," said Sir Desmond de Silva, the second chief prosecutor to preside at Sierra Leone.
It wasn't only those who were mutilated who were victims. Many captives in Sierra Leone had the names of rebel groups — which Taylor supported — carved into their backs or chests to prevent their escape. Captives were a valuable labor force to the rebels. Child soldiers were drugged and armed before being unleashed to torture or capture innocent civilians. They guarded diamond mines, hunted for food, and controlled civilians with brutal force. The maiming served as a reminder to other citizens: obey the rebels' rule of law. Women and girls were first brutally raped and then forced either to become sexual slaves, to labor in support of the rebels or to serve as soldiers themselves.
Indicting and arresting Taylor was a delicate and dangerous matter. David Crane, the Special Court's first chief prosecutor, asked Hollis to use discretion as she traveled to London to present the indictments against a list of suspects. Taylor was chief among those who bore greatest responsibility, though his name was not initially made public.
"Our concern was that he was going to start knocking off witnesses very quickly if he would have even had a hint of that," Crane said.
It wasn't until Taylor was turned out of his sanctuary by Nigerian authorities that he was arrested for his crimes in Sierra Leone. Only then were victims asked to testify against him on the record, an arduous process in which Hollis was very involved. It took more than a year to present the evidence of some 100 witnesses, including victims, at Taylor's trial in The Hague, Netherlands.
"It was an immense exercise. Some of these people had never traveled more than 100 kilometers in their whole life," said the third chief prosecutor, Steven Rapp, who now serves as Ambassador-at-Large and head of the Office of Global Criminal Justice for the U.S. Department of State.
Though many people are impoverished in Sierra Leone, the country is laden with diamonds — sometimes, even just a shovel below the ground. Trading the precious gemstones meant firearms and favors for Taylor, so rebels seized the areas most fertile with diamonds.
The evidence at trial was that in one instance, Taylor required and was given 90 carats of diamonds and $90,000 to obtain firearms for the Revolutionary United Front. After a multinational trip that included a chance meeting between Taylor and supermodel Naomi Campbell in 1997, the arms and ammunition were delivered to the rebel group. Hollis questioned the supermodel about the encounter with Taylor at a posh gathering in South Africa, after which she was given uncut diamonds. As it turned out, however, Taylor was his own most damaging witness, Hollis recalled.
"He is a very charismatic man. He is a very eloquent man. He is a very intelligent man. And all of that came across when he testified," Hollis said. "But he had changed his story a bit. It was a very, very long direct examination, many months long. Which gave him the opportunity to confuse his evidence, and to say things that later would come back to haunt him." Hollis invited all of her predecessors to join her in court to hear the decision in May 2012. Taylor's conviction prompted some excitement because the prosecution was successful, but Hollis had tempered any potential courtroom celebration from her staff.
"I told them they had to remain very solemn and under no circumstance could they throw up in the court room," she said, smiling.
It is fitting that Hollis should reflect on her career and college years at the International Law Dialogues, because coincidentally, the idea for the event emerged on campus at BGSU.
Peterson and Crane, the first chief prosecutor at Sierra Leone, were visiting BGSU for a 2006 academic conference related to the Nuremberg Trials, at the invitation of Dr. Douglas Neckers, McMaster Distinguished Research Professor of photochemical sciences and Henry T. King Fellow at the Jackson Center. Neckers had spent several years establishing connections between the University and the Jackson Center in advance of the conference.
Over coffee at the Bowen-Thompson Student Union, the three agreed that "prosecutors are in very lonely world," and the idea for the Chautauqua event emerged.
"Chautauqua is this great place where (prosecutors) can contemplate and get away, and the people here are extremely intellectually curious," Peterson said.
If Chautauqua is a sanctuary for these prosecutors, Bowling Green served the same purpose during Hollis's early years. "When I look back on the experiences in my life, Bowling Green has a special place," Hollis said. "I took away from Bowling Green a lot of knowledge, increased self-confidence, and an expectation that I would do what played to my strengths and my interests regardless of whether someone thought that was appropriate for a woman or someone from my background."
Hollis built confidence as a student-athlete at BGSU. She played hockey and softball, but was a standout in women's basketball. Hollis maintains contact with Dolores "Bucky" Black and Janet Parks, two of her favorite coaches and retired physical education faculty from BGSU. They joined Hollis when she was honored as one of the 100 Most Prominent Alumni of BGSU in 2010, and when she was recognized for her lifetime achievements by Case Western Reserve University School of Law in 2011.
Competing in sport at BGSU was a formative experience that Hollis was grateful to have more than five years before Title IX guaranteed the same opportunities for women and men in education. Women in sport were better off at BGSU than most universities, but there were certainly no locker rooms or sports treatment facilities here for female athletes. She is pleased with how far women's sports have progressed since she was a student.
"I think sports and organized sports are so important for girls and women because they teach you that you really can compete on the fields of friendly strife and still be friends afterward," Hollis said. "They teach you that you're not this fragile little thing. That you are a person (who) can be strong and resourceful. And so it gives you a lot of self-confidence in ways that boys and men have always known."
It is remarkable to consider how much Hollis has accomplished with that confidence. The idea of retirement implies relaxation and leisure travel, but Hollis has spent her retirement making a global impact in human rights law. "Maybe I'll retire again," she said, laughing.
She can't help but chuckle at questions about her future plans. After all, she was never much of a planner. But she wouldn't have it any other way. Some of her greatest opportunities came as surprises, and she hopes BGSU students will welcome such unexpected chances in their own careers.