The Charles Taylor Verdict, April 26th

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On April 26, 2012 the first ever verdict by an international war crimes tribunal of a head of state will be handed down in the trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor.

Taylor is charged with 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for supporting rebels responsible for mass human rights atrocities (including violently severing limbs, killing, raping and robbing the civilian population). Taylor, if found guilty, could be sentenced to life in prison; a sentence that will send a strong message of justice prevailing to other dictators committing human rights abuses.

Geoffrey Robertson, former president of the U.N.’s war crimes court in Sierra Leone and author of Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice, wrote a thorough article outlining the background of Taylor's case and analyzes some of the disputed issues the court faces in deciding Taylor's verdict. His article is included below in its entirety.

Awaiting a Verdict In Charles Taylor’s War Crimes Trial by Geoffrey Robertson

The verdict on Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia, will be announced on April 26 by the Special Court for Sierra Leone. It has sat for over three years in The Hague to hear accusations that in order to gain a share of Sierra Leone’s diamonds, he conspired with Foday Sankoh’s Revolutionary United Front to wage Africa’s most brutal war against a democratically elected government. Taylor and Sankoh (who died in 2003) are alleged to have trained in Libya at the invitation of Col. Muammar Gaddafi (an “unindicted co-conspirator”).

During the war, it is said that Taylor, posing as a peacemaker, presented some of his ill-gotten uncut diamonds to supermodel Naomi Campbell, after dinner chez Nelson Mandela. He is charged with murder, rape, terrorism, pillage, sexual enslavement, and recruiting children.

Much of the evidence has been stomach-turning. The RUF fighters lopped off the hands of anyone who had voted in the U.N.-sponsored elections and engaged in widespread mutilation and murder of civilians as part of Operation No Living Thing in Freetown. There is no doubt that they recruited children as soldiers and sex slaves, and killed prisoners of war to eat their hearts out in the juju belief that they would gain their enemies’ strength.

But was Charles Taylor in any way responsible for these atrocities? He never set foot in Sierra Leone and the prosecution had to rely on evidence that he was in communication with rebel leaders. That contact was necessary, so Taylor testified, to perform his U.N.-accredited role as peacemaker. The prosecution claimed he was directing his RUF proxies, and in return for diamonds was arranging to supply them with weapons, military personnel, and safe haven on the Liberia–Sierra Leone border.

It will be for the court—a judge from Northern Ireland, a judge from Uganda, and a judge from Samoa (trained in Australia) to determine where the truth lies. Instead of defying the court like Milosevic or trying to disrupt it by defending himself, Taylor retained a British Queen’s Counsel (a senior Old Bailey advocate) to represent him throughout the trial. This made it a true adversarial proceeding and enhanced his prospects of acquittal by independent judges on prosecution evidence that has been mainly circumstantial—no witnesses testified to receiving orders from him to fight the war. The judges must be satisfied of his guilt beyond reasonable doubt, so his conviction on all or any of the charges is not a foregone conclusion.

One disquieting feature of the case is the time the court has taken to deliver this judgment—thirteen months, no less, since the final speeches finished. The trial itself lasted over three years, during which time the judges should have been working on their assessments—the issues are complicated but it should not take over a year to give reasons for a verdict. While it is not necessary to follow the lead of the German judges who convicted one of the last Nazis—John Demjanjuk—only two days after the end of his two-year trial, it remains true that justice delayed is justice denied, especially in a court whose first president promised that “our justice, whilst it may not be exquisite, will never be rough.”

At any event, it can be predicted that the judgment will be lengthy. It has been touted as the first international-court decision on the guilt of a head of state (Milosevic having died mid-trial and Jean Kambanda, president of Rwanda, having pleaded guilty before the tribunal in Arusha established to deal with the Rwandan genocide), although purists will note that Admiral Dönitz, briefly head of Germany after Hitler’s death, was convicted at Nuremberg.

Media interest will doubtless center on the findings in respect to Naomi Campbell’s “blood diamonds.” The prosecution alleges they were a gift from Taylor (he denies it)—an example of his gains ill gotten from the war. Some light may also be shed on how Charles Taylor ever became a guarantor, with the U.S. and the U.N., of the Lomé Accord—the infamous peace agreement that put the fox in charge of the henhouse by making RUF leader Sankoh the deputy prime minister of Sierra Leone and minister in charge of the diamond mines. It was Jesse Jackson as President Clinton’s emissary who had secured Sankoh’s release from prison (hailing him as “West Africa’s Nelson Mandela”) and who joined in sponsoring the worst peace deal since the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. “The Lomé Accord stank,” says David Scheffer in his recent autobiography: as Clinton’s war-crimes ambassador, he should have brokered it but says he was shut out. Taylor relies on Lomé as evidence that he only met Sankoh at the request of the U.S. and the U.N.: they wanted him to act as a peacemaker in the region. The prosecution, claiming he was the “godfather” of the RUF, suggests that he exploited this role to deliver the spoils of war into the hands of his proxies. These are some of the disputed issues on which the court must make findings of fact.

Cover Photo by Vincent van Zeijst