Charles Taylor on Trial

Inside the UN-Sierra Leone Special Court’s massive fortification, at a spot close to its small detention centre, is a helicopter landing strip. The strip was furtively constructed about two years ago. When a foreign visitor wondered aloud at the time whether the strip was constructed in preparation for the reception of a certain alleged war criminal at large – Court officials always cannily stoked up such speculation whenever the Court’s annual budget was being prepared (the Court subsists on voluntary contributions from UN members, since it lacks the Security Council’s Article VII mandate) – officials bridled. Except for the occasional use by the troops guarding the Court, the strip remained derelict, and almost forgotten. When I passed by it in January, I noticed that the grass around it was untamed.

In the last week of March, however, activities mounted around the strip. Senior Court officials confidently asserted that Charles Taylor, the former Liberian President indicted on seventeen (later reduced to eleven) counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Court, will “in a matter of days” be landed at the strip, and placed in cell Number Three of the adjacent detention centre. It was vertiginous all around the Court’s premises, and indeed throughout the sub-region.

This time they were right. At exactly 7 pm, on 29 March, two UN helicopters, which had taken off from Liberia’s Robertsfield International airport, hovered over the Special Court compound. One landed immediately on the strip, and the other continued to hover above. Charles Taylor, formerly most feared warlord (and subsequently Liberia’s maximum president), handcuffed and dressed in a white flowing gown partly covered by a bullet-proof vest, descended from the helicopter flanked by UN soldiers. He looked visibly dazed, and his eyes were downcast. As he walked towards the detention centre, Sierra Leone’s Deputy Inspector General of Police, Oliver Somasa, formally arrested Taylor. Two other Sierra Leonean senior police officers joined Somasa, and in a brief ceremony read out the charges against Taylor, along with his rights. Taylor looked glumly on. He was then handed over to the Special Court (this formality necessary because the Court is, at least on paper, a collaborative effort between the Sierra Leone government and the UN) and promptly taken inside the detention centre, from where loud shouts (of welcome?) could be heard from the other detainees, nine Sierra Leoneans who have been there since 2003.

The scene was steeped in bathos: Taylor, once so raffish and forbidding, was now lodged in a small cell in this fortified compound where he had to be told what his rights were. “Today is a momentous occasion and an important day for international justice, the international community, and above all, the people of Sierra Leone,” declared the Special Court’s Chief Prosecutor, British barrister Desmond del Silva. No, Joseph Conrad’s cynical aside (in the Heart of Darkness) about the “outraged justice” coming from the high seas to strike in an improbable place did not immediately suggest itself: this moment had been awaited for long.

Taylor’s journey to this detention centre began in June 2003 after the Special Court unveiled a long-sealed indictment accusing him of bearing the ‘greatest responsibility’ for heinous offences committed in Sierra Leone’s decade-long (1991-2002) war. At the time the indictment drew outrage, both for the manner in which it was delivered, and for its singularly unhelpful timing. Taylor was then in Ghana, the host of the Ghanaian government, and was engaged in peace talks, aimed at ending Liberia’s then ever-widening humanitarian catastrophe, which were sponsored by the African Union and the UN. Other leaders at the talks included South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki and Nigeria’s Obansajo. Slighting this august gathering, the Special Court sent the indictment to the Ghanaian authorities via email, and then organized a press conference in Freetown to announce it. Chagrined, Ghana’s President John Kuffour put Taylor in a Ghanaian presidential jet, and flew him back to Monrovia. The talks continued, however, and in August Taylor relinquished power and went into self-exile in Nigeria. The understanding was that Taylor would continue to be protected by the Nigerian government, and would not be handed over to the Court.

The Special Court and the world’s human right’s community mounted a public relations campaign to force Nigeria to hand over Taylor. Law suits were hastily arranged in Nigeria, and Obansajo, facing unpopularity at home for his plan to seek a third term (illegal under the present constitutional settlement), began to bow to media campaigns by making one fateful promise: he would only hand over Taylor to an elected Liberian president who makes the request. This promise was both characteristically insincere and immensely stupid. Nigeria is a member of the Management Committee (chaired by Canada) which runs the Special Court and has invested billions of dollars and hundreds of its own soldiers’ lives in the wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia. It therefore surely had the morale authority (more than the US, more than the so-called international community, more than the human rights brigade) either to reject outright any pressure to hand in Taylor, or simply comply with the demand. Instead, Obansajo gambled that a deal would be struck with any incoming Liberian leader, since such a leader would surely feel beholden to the Nigerian leadership.

In the event Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who had initially stated, correctly, that the Taylor issue was none of her business, came under intense pressure from the human rights community as her visit to the US loomed. Being Liberian, the enticement to make the request for the handing in of Taylor – a welcome to the White House, dinner with the President, perhaps an address to the Congress, and all the usual blandishments about that historical cord tying Liberia to the US (even though the Americans would end up giving the struggling new Liberian government only $50 million) – was irresistible. Johnson-Sirleaf now said, again correctly, that the fate of one Liberian should not hold a nation of three million hostage, and she formally made the request to Obansajo. It was a courageous – some would say, foolhardy – decision. Almost immediately, funny things began to happen.

I arrived in Liberia shortly after Johnson-Sirleaf made the request. The President had left for the US, and was due to arrive a day after I did. The Liberian papers were proclaiming her visit a triumph, and the nation waited to welcome her. My friend Conmany Wesseh (the Deputy Foreign Minister) told me that she would be landing at Springs Payne airport, at the outskirts of the city, at about 10:00 am. By that time, hundreds of colourfully-dressed Liberians, some masked dancers, and UN troops, stood waiting at the tiny, bare airport. Then word came that the president would be landing at Robertsfield – several miles from the city – instead. All the colourful welcome ceremonies were ditched. When she landed, Johnson-Sirleaf was taken by helicopter and flown straight to the Executive mansion, the presidential palace. There, surrounded by US marines wearing armoured flaks, she delivered a short speech, and all was over.

It transpired that the Liberian government was gripped by security anxieties. It had earlier preemptively arrested a number of people associated with Taylor and his party. But Taylor undoubtedly still commands loyalty and support in Liberia; this support was thrown behind Johnson-Sirleaf during her run-off contest with football star George Weah (Taylor and his wife Jewel, now a senior senator, calculated that Johnson-Sirleaf, with her previous links with Taylor, will be relied upon not to ask for Taylor’s handing over to the Court.) The speaker of the Liberian House of Representatives is Edwin Snowe, a former Taylor aide; and a former Taylor General with the wonderfully delicious name Peanut Butter is a member of the Senate. Taylor still has substantial business and other interests in Liberia. Now, for doing something that she was totally reluctant to so prematurely – ask for Taylor’s handing over – Johnson-Sirleaf, so charismatic and colourful and populist, was now hiding from her own people and ordering arrests that are, while understandable, clearly extra-legal. Liberians spoke darkly of a return to the bad-old-days of lawlessness and tyranny.

I felt angry, sad, confused; I felt gripped by a kind of melancholy. I felt that a President who held so much promise only a few weeks before had now been railroaded into a decision that, I fear, may well change the trajectory of her presidency for good.

It is not that Taylor does not deserve to be behind bars; of all people he eminently deserves to face justice for the wars he instigated in the region and for which he gained immensely. I have myself documented Taylor’s criminal role in the Sierra Leone war in various publications, including most recently my book, A Dirty War in West Africa: The RUF and the Destruction of Sierra Leone (Hurst/University of Indiana Press, 2005). No one that I know has any doubt about Taylor’s capriciousness, his ruthlessness and brutality, the great depredations he caused in Liberia and in the sub-region from 1989 (when he launched a brutal insurgency against Liberian President Samuel Doe) through to his involvement in violent upheavals in Sierra Leone (in particular his support for the uniquely brutal Revolutionary United Front, or RUF, of Sierra Leone), Guinea and Ivory Coast. These are well-documented by independent researchers and various UN panels. The question is: was this the right time to have to throw Liberia (and Sierra Leone for that matter) into such levels of anxiety and emergency?

No doubt, for those principled advocates of humanitarian law and human rights, this question is beside the point. The point is that an indicted war criminal has now been captured. I envy them their simplicity, their moral clarity; I envy Richard Dicker (of the Human Rights Watch), David Crane (formerly the Special Prosecutor of the Special Court now a humanitarian law professor in the US) and all those of the human rights brigade who have the luxury of substituting some vogue doctrines for knowledge, the people who, sucked into a form of narcissism, in the end – to quote VS Naipaul writing about such people in another context – do little more than celebrate their own security…

Obansajo did not hand over Taylor promptly after Johnson-Sirleaf’s request as he had promised. Instead, his office peevishly declared that the Liberians were free to go take Taylor in Nigeria: Taylor, the Nigerians said, was a refugee, not a detainee, implying that the indicted war criminal was free to go where he pleased. This was, of course, a tad disingenuous; and when a day later Taylor was reported to have ‘disappeared’ from the Calabar villa where he had been living since he left Liberia, there was understandable outrage. The ‘escape’ was clumsily choreographed: two days later, the Nigerians announced that Taylor had been arrested trying to enter Cameroon in a ‘diplomatic car’ (Desperation can lead to foolishness but it is hard to imagine the wily Taylor thinking that traveling in a car with a diplomatic plate confers anonymity.)

Taylor was then flown to Robertsfield airport in Liberia, and handed over to the UN authorities – fulfilling, in a way, his last wish upon relinquishing power: “God willing, I will be back!” In a few hours he was headed for Sierra Leone. A woman in the crowd outside the Special Court building after Taylor was sent to his cell turned to me and said, apropos of a statement made by Taylor in 1990, “He told us that we in Sierra Leone will taste the bitterness of war. We did. But now he is enjoying the sweetness of justice.”

A few days later, on 3 April, Taylor was formally charged in court. The case, with the delicately inclusive title “The Prosecutor against Charles Ghankay Taylor also known as Dankpannah Charles Ghankay Taylor also known as Dankpannah Charles Ghankay Macarthur Taylor”, alleges that from 1996 to 2002 Taylor committed “crimes against humanity, violations of Article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions and of additional Protocol II and other serious violations of international humanitarian law” in Sierra Leone. The indictment states that throughout Sierra Leone’s war, “Liberian fighters…under [Taylor’s] control and/or operating in Sierra Leone with [Taylor’s] consent” fought alongside the RUF, causing enormous destruction and rights violation, perpetuating terrorist violence, looting the country’s resources, and raping women. The indictment states that Taylor was a mentor and sponsor of the RUF, and did so for personal enrichment, in particular the stealing of Sierra Leone’s mineral resources, especially diamonds.

Taylor, therefore, bears “the greatest responsibility” for the war and for the atrocities that characterized it. While most of the charges have been already independently arrived at by others, the notion of ‘greatest responsibility’ creates a kind of linguistic and philosophical tangle. Twelve others have been similarly alleged to bear such responsibility. By alleging each of them to bear the ‘greatest’ responsibility, observers say, the word ‘greatest’ itself loses its heuristic value. This will likely be a point of contest in the coming months.

Earlier, the Special Court, acting on the request President Johnson-Sirleaf, had sought to transfer the trial to The Hague. Provision is made for this in the statute setting up the Court. Its Article 9 states that “The Special Court shall have its seat in Sierra Leone. The Court may meet away from its seat if it considers it necessary for the efficient exercise of its functions, and may be relocated outside Sierra Leone, if circumstances so require.” Court officials say that the widespread fear that Taylor’s trial in Sierra Leone may undermine regional security has made it necessary for the trial to be conducted in Europe.

In Court, Taylor, appearing impeccably dressed in a black suit and maroon tie, and fidgeting with his fingers while the charges were read, rejected this option, stating that if the venue were moved out of Sierra Leone, his relatives and friends won’t be able to visit him. He began, unsurprisingly, by challenging the right of the Court to try him, stating that while he “did not and could not have committed [the crimes]” in the indictment, he would not be responding to the charges. The Court took it that it was a plea of not guilty. Then his lawyers added, surprisingly, that Taylor was “indigent” and would therefore be relying on the lawyers provided by the Court to defend him. Everyone appeared stunned. After a few lugubrious technical exchanges, the matter was adjourned. Taylor was on trial.

I wanted badly to feel elated, and in a fleeting moment I did: here was a man who I and many others – mainly Liberian comrades – have been pursuing for years – here was he now, though defiant, quite clearly humbled, confined to a small cell in a barricaded compound. It had been a long struggle, and I, as well as many countless others, have a right to self-congratulation. Yet I felt I have to suspend the celebration; I had to wait and see how it all plays out in this volatile region of ours.

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