23 APRIL 2012
Former Liberian President Charles Taylor at the UN-backed court. (Photo Courtesy Liberian Observer)
The historic trial of former Liberian leader Charles Ghankay Taylor reaches a climax at The Hague this week, with Liberians, Sierra Leoneans and the rest of the world watching to see whether he will be guilty or not.
In a modern court building, more than 3,000 miles from the tropical West African country of Sierra Leone, three judges have for more than 12 months been painstakingly weighing up five years of court proceedings, 50,000 pages of transcripts, and the testimony of almost 120 witnesses.
But for one man there is no such agonizing as reported Harriet Alexander.
Charles Taylor Judgement to Be Delivered on Thursday
On Thursday the three judges presiding over the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague will deliver their long-awaited verdict.
Mr. Taylor, 64, is charged with 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including rape, terrorism, murder and using child soldiers. He denies all charges, calling them “diabolical lies”.
Although he never set foot in Sierra Leone during the 1991-2002 civil war, which killed over 50,000 people, he is accused of providing the rebel factions with arms and cash in return for access to the country’s diamond fields.
He will become the first ever head of state to have been indicted, tried and had verdict pronounced on him in an international court.
“In the Nuremberg Trials after the Second World War, neither Hitler nor the Emperor of Japan were ever brought to justice,” said Nicholas Koumjian, a lawyer at the court. “Slobodan Milosevic, accused of war crimes in the Balkans, died before his trial could finish. This is a historic moment.”
It will also be closely watched in London. Tony Blair’s decision to send in troops, bringing about a rapid end to the war, is widely seen as a high point in his interventionist foreign policy. His government agreed to house Charles Taylor if he is convicted – making it likely that the former president will end his days in a British high-security prison.
And there is certainly the sense that Thursday’s verdict will close a painful chapter in Sierra Leonean history.
“We have been through so much trauma that the chance to bring someone to justice is something we are all looking forward to,” said Solomon Berewa, minister of justice at the time of Mr Taylor’s detention who sought the UN’s assistance with trying him outside the country.
Speaking to The Sunday Telegraph from his home in Freetown, the 73-year-old lawyer said he was proud of the part he had played.
“If he is convicted, as we hope, there will be huge jubilation,” he said. “The war which he sponsored caused huge havoc in this country. We will feel justice has been done.”
Mr Taylor had been an influential and magnetic figure for many decades. Born to a powerful family of Americo-Liberians – descended from freed slaves who founded Liberia in the 19th Century – he studied in the US, picking up a distinctive American twang.
“He is charismatic and articulate, and, unlike other accused in international cases, he is so fluent in English he can sound just like an American politician,” said Mr Koumjian, who took part in Taylor’s cross-examination.
“He is a master of manipulating people and had the ability to win ‘friendships’ with all kinds of people from Pat Robertson to Jesse Jackson, who surely could not believe the charming man speaking to them was capable of the kind of violence he has long been accused of.”
Mr Taylor worked in government procurement under a previous president, Samuel Doe, before fleeing to America where he was eventually imprisoned for fraud. Later he made his way to Libya, where under the tutelage of Colonel Gaddafi he trained in guerrilla warfare and learnt how to launch a civil war.
In 1989 he returned to overthrow the Doe regime, launching the country into bloody convulsions that killed 200,000 people, and becoming one of Africa’s most notorious warlords. He was known as “Pappy” by a generation of drugged child soldiers, who were led by self-appointed generals with names like Peanut Butter, Bad Boy and Butt Naked.
Following a peace deal that ended the war, he was elected president in 1997, terrorising the people into voting him with the unofficial slogan: “You killed my ma, you killed my pa, but I will vote for you.”
A Ghanaian journalist who interviewed Mr Taylor at the time and mentioned the macabre chants recalled him asking: “Have you heard them? They mean it, you know, and they love me.”
He relished the role of president. A natural showman, he was equally at home brandishing an AK47, sporting dazzling African tribal dress or in a sharply-cut three piece suit.
When he faced accusations from the UN that he was a gun runner and diamond smuggler, he addressed a mass prayer meeting clad head to toe in flowing, Biblical white robes.
In 1997, he attended a now-infamous dinner party in South Africa, hosted by Nelson Mandela. Among the guests were Naomi Campbell.
“When I was sleeping, I had a knock on my door, I opened and two men gave me a pouch and said: ‘A gift for you’,” Miss Campbell told the court in August 2010, when she was reluctantly summoned to testify by the prosecution. “The next morning, I opened the pouch… I saw a few stones in there, and they were very small, dirty-looking stones.”
The prosecution claims that the “small dirty stones” were blood diamonds – gems extracted from the ground and given to Mr Taylor by Sierra Leonean rebels in exchange for funding and arms.
“He was a very charismatic man – one that could turn black into white,” said Emmanuel Tommy, who worked at the time for the Red Cross in southern Sierra Leone, on the border with Liberia.
“He is so dangerous because he could lead good people into trouble. From the outset of the war we knew he was behind it – some of the displaced people even said they were attacked by fighters speaking Liberian dialects.”
Married three times, his former wife Jewel – a feisty woman with a penchant for bright clothes and plain speaking – divorced him when he left Liberia. She is now a senator in the country. Mr Taylor remarried and his new wife Victoria, who moved with him to The Netherlands, bore him a daughter in February 2010. He is thought to have more than 15 children in total.
Mr Koumjian, the prosecution lawyer, added: “Many were naïve about what Taylor was capable of, but I think in the end, Taylor was a victim of his own arrogance. He overestimated what he could get away when he sent proxies to invade Guinea and Ivory Coast, destabilising the entire region.”
Mr Taylor’s lawyer, Courtenay Griffiths QC, disagrees. He maintains that the trial is politically motivated, and that there is little to prove that Mr Taylor ordered or even knew what his allies were doing.
“The essence of the case against Taylor is that he funded and supported a rebel group in a neighbouring country,” he said. “The US and other countries have been doing that for years. The Contras committed atrocities in Nicaragua and everybody knows they were supported by the CIA.
“Yet Taylor is being prosecuted for his foreign policy. And I think that sets a very unwelcome precedent for weaker countries around the world.”
As part of the agreement with the UN, the Special Court in The Hague has relayed events back to Sierra Leone via radio, print and online. But many point out that, for all the well-meaning efforts to document and explain the trial, so few people in Sierra Leone have access to internet that it makes little difference.
While there have been improvements since the end of the civil war, most citizens still face a daily struggle for survival: average life expectancy is just 47 years, and the per capita GDP is $300 a year. Only a handful of countries can be considered more impoverished.
Ade Daramy, president of the Sierra Leonean Diaspora Association, said the country’s major towns were having their roads rehabilitated – often by Chinese construction workers.
“That’s very visible,” he said. “But there’s a long way to go.
“For a lot of Sierra Leoneans, the fact that none of the money for this trial has come from our coffers means that we can concentrate on the important things; improving our hospitals, education, water supply, electricity, roads.
“There is a Sierra Leonean mindset that says if only the world out there would open its eyes, it would see what there is. There is so much potential – not diamonds and more, but iron ore, and human capital.
“We wouldn’t need aid. We just need assistance to build and develop our own industries.”
And as Sierra Leone prepares for Thursday’s verdict, the psychological impact of the conflict is yet again coming into focus.
“What many cannot comprehend is how fragile this region remains,” said Mr Koumjian. “There are a lot of these ex fighters with little or no employment opportunities, who must surely miss the days when they could do anything.
“The forced recruitment of young boys and especially girls into rebel armies has left scars that will take generations to heal. These child soldiers who killed or amputed or were simply victims of sexual slavery for the rebel armies are now often ostracized or disowned from their communities and even their own families.
“These girls who were ‘rebel wives’ and their children are now cut off from the traditional support networks of extended family, village and tribe. Many have turned to prostitution to survive. So the damage from these wars will continue to cast a shadow on these societies for generations.”
Unisa Dizo-Conteh, remembering the three family members he lost in the conflict, is steeling himself for the painful memories Thursday’s verdict will bring back. His brother Morlai would have been 31 now, perhaps having fulfilled his dream of becoming a lawyer. Mr Dizo-Conteh has named his seven-year-old son after him.
“In my dreams we are playing together in the yard of our house,” he said. “We were so close – we had a secret language and could talk to each other without adults knowing.
“Sometimes in the mornings I wake up and I think he is alive. It still hurts so much.
“We need some form of justice to get on with our lives.”
Charles Taylor was in Accra, Ghana, attending peace talks, when the news came through that he had been indicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone on June 4, 2003. He fled back to Liberia, fearing arrest. Two months later, a deal between the United Nations, the United States, the African Union, and ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) was struck to get Taylor out of Liberia. Taylor then went into exile in Nigeria.
Almost three years passed before Taylor was arrested and transferred to the Special Court for Sierra Leone. His time in Nigeria did not go unchallenged, however. Civil society and others were still pushing for him to answer the charges against him in the indictment.
In Abuja, Nigeria, two Nigerian businessmen, David Anyaele and Emmanuel Egbuna–whose limbs were allegedly amputated by Taylor’s forces in Liberia–challenged Taylor’s asylum and sought to have him extradited to the Special Court for Sierra Leone to face justice. But the case wound its way through the courts slowly.
Eventually, the new Liberian president, former World Bank official Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, asked for Taylor to be returned to Liberia. Twenty days later, on March 25, 2006, Nigerian president, Olusdegun Obasanjo informed Johnson-Sirleaf that Liberia was “free to take former President Charles Taylor into its custody.” Within 48 hours, Taylor went missing from his seaside villa in Nigeria. Nigerian officials raised the alarm and ordered his arrest. Taylor was caught by Nigerian authorities on March 29, 2006, as he tried to cross the Cameroon border in a Range Rover. Taylor was placed in a Nigerian Government jet with military guard and flown to Monrovia. Peacekeepers arrested him on the tarmac and put aboard a UN helicopter headed for Freetown, where he was handed over to the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
Citing fears over instability in Liberia if Taylor were tried in neighboring Sierra Leone, Sirleaf-Johnson backed a bid to have Taylor’s trial moved to The Hague.
The Dutch Government asked for a Security Council resolution to authorize the transfer, and said it would host Taylor’s trial on the condition that another country agreed in advance to take Taylor after his trial finished (the United Kingdom agreed). Security Council Resolution 1688 was passed unanimously on June 16, 2006, paving the way for Taylor to be tried by the Special Court on the premises of the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Resolution 1688 also requested “all States to cooperate to this end, in particular to ensure the appearance of former President Taylor in the Netherlands for purposes of his trial by the Special Court, and encourages all States as well to ensure that any evidence or witnesses are, upon the request of the Special Court, promptly made available to the Special Court for this purpose.” After some delays, Taylor’s trial began in earnest on January 7, 2008, in The Hague.