Liberia: Taylor Trial a Triumph for International Justice, but Case Stirs Up Cordoned-Off Past


BY THIJS BOUWKNEGT

Charles Ghankay Taylor, Right
Charles Ghankay Taylor awaits the dubious honour of becoming the first former head of state to be judged before an international criminal tribunal.
The former Liberian president’s apprehension is the jewel in the crown of international justice, but his criminal case on eleven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity is hardly clear-cut.
Critics claim Taylor’s prosecution was straitjacketed by the trial’s limited time frame, thus neglecting to address many issues. Whether or not he is found guilty of a campaign of terror in neighbouring Sierra Leone, Thursday’s verdict will leave a trail of questions about atrocities and his relations with Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels during Sierra Leone’s civil war in the 1990s.

The plea
“Most definitely, Your Honour, I did not and could not have committed these acts against the sister Republic of Sierra Leone, […] so most definitely I am not guilty,” Taylor told the judges during his first appearance on 3 April 2006 in Freetown. Three years earlier, he had taken refuge in a luxurious villa at the invitation of former Nigerian president Olegun Obasanjo.
But following his arrest and transfer to the custody of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), he has remained the most senior figure in the dock of an international tribunal.
Taylor fired his first lawyer Karim Kahn, but did not try to frustrate proceedings further. The court even allowed him to take the stand himself, for an unprecedented seven-month period, to meticulously detail West African history.
Refuse collection
“Throw it in the bin. That is what we submit the court should do with this body of evidence: get rid of it,” said Taylor’s lead lawyer Courtenay Griffiths during closing arguments in March 2011. He argued that the conflict in Sierra Leone was not a Taylor-made catastrophe. On the contrary, he says, Taylor’s “role in Sierra Leone was entirely peaceful.”
Taylor is accused of “acts of terrorism”. This American-flavoured concept burdened the prosecution with a challenge: proving that Taylor forged an illicit conspiracy with RUF leader Foday Sankoh in Libya in the late 1980s to conquer West Africa. Their alleged motive? To become rich off rough diamonds from Sierra Leone. Their alleged modus operandi? A campaign of terror.
Taylor does not deny an orgy of atrocities took place. He simply refutes the charge that he was at the centre of them. But American prosecutor Brenda Hollis has consistently maintained that “the RUF was a terrorist army created and supported and directed by Charles Taylor … All this suffering, all these atrocities to feed the greed and lust for power of Charles Taylor,” she said.
Former aides and enemies
In an effort to tie Taylor to the Sierra Leonean crimes, the prosecution flew 94 witnesses to the Netherlands. The only direct evidence connecting the massacres in Sierra Leone to Taylor comes from his own former aides and enemies. Some had strong reasons to testify against their political rival.
Others were criminals, like Joseph Marzah, known as ‘Zigzag’. During a chaotic three-day testimony in March 2008, the former secret service agent confessed to displaying “heads on sticks and car bumpers”, killing babies, cutting open pregnant women and eating “Nigerians and white people”.
Counterpoint
Producing almost 50,000 pages of transcript and over a thousand exhibits, the Taylor trial offers a unique insight into Liberian and Sierra Leonean history. It also uncovers two diametrically opposed narratives about Taylor’s role in West Africa. In Taylor’s version, he is a peacemaker carrying the can for the international community. In the prosecution’s version, he represents the dark corner of that world.
But the prosecution may only succeed in proving that Taylor – because of his position – “should have known” about the crimes and that he “did nothing to prevent them”. They claim he did everything to destroy evidence of links with RUF rebels, accusing Taylor of killing his “favourite” general, Sam Bockarie, and AFRC junta leader Johnny Paul Koroma after they were also charged by the SCSL.
Not the whole truth
For many observers, the SCSL’s main shortcoming is that it cannot deal with Taylor’s full role in West Africa’s history. His participation in Liberia’s back-to-back civil wars has been well documented.
Although the SCSL has delved deep into Taylor’s history, it can only make findings on established crimes in Sierra Leone committed after November 1996. The era of alleged atrocities in Liberia before then will thus have to be left untouched.
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