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Why Charles Taylor’s war crimes judgment seems like A travesty of justice to Liberians

By Moco McCaulay    Charles Taylor in court

 

On April 26, 2012, the former leader of a small African nation and a feared ex-rebel leader who spread terror in his country and across West Africa—but seemed above-the-law—was finally cut to size by the swashbuckling sword of Lady Justice. It was a day that international news media heralded as: “the end of impunity!

A fairytale-like ending you could say, especially for the people of Sierra Leone, to the atrocious story of death and destruction that had plagued West Africa during the 1990s. And the concluding narrative of the verdict that was told to the world paralleled a Mosaic redemption: a people, long subjugated to the appalling brutalities of war, had finally found respite at the Oasis of Justice after a brutal trek through the Wilderness of Injustice.

Who could therefore be sacrilegious enough as to want to sour such a narrative?

Well, one man is trying to ruin that happy ending. And, if you were Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia, who was found guilty on that day for “aiding and abetting”the commission of war crimes in Sierra Leone, and later sentenced to 50 years in prison, you too would probably be doing everything within your power to ruin the fairytale-like ending of this narrative.

So Taylor and his team of lawyers, headed by Morris Anyah, have appealed the verdict, calling it “a miscarriage of justice.” The appeal judges are now deliberating the case and are expected to make a decision whether to uphold the verdict or overturn it at some point before the year’s end.

A Grave Danger to the Credibility of International Justice?

But, it seems it is not only Taylor and his lawyers who have tried to play the Grinch to this rousing narrative of how the righteous Wrath of Lady Justice finally struck down a murderous warlord for “aiding and abetting” crimes against humanity. Even on that day that supposedly marked “the end of impunity,” Malick Sow, an alternate judge who sat on the bench during the full length of Taylor’s trial, cast aspersions on the legal foundations on which Taylor was found guilty.

“I disagree with the findings and conclusions of the other judges, because for me, under any mode of liability, under any accepted standard of proof, the guilt of the accused from the evidence provided in this trial is not proved beyond reasonable doubt by the prosecution.  And my only worry is that the whole system is not consistent with all the principles we know and love, and the system is not consistent with all the values of international criminal justice, and I’m afraid the whole system is under grave danger of just losing all credibility…”  Judge Sow interjected right after the presiding judge delivered the court’s verdict.

But, before Judge Sow could finish delivering his dissenting opinion, his microphone was brusquely switched off and the Venetian blinds of the public gallery was immediately pulled, leaving Judge Sow literally in the dark, while the other judges scurried off the bench.

But those were hardly Judge Sow’s last word on the issue. In a no holds barred interview with New African magazine’s reporter, Sheriff Bojang, Jr., the Senegalese judge didn’t mince his objection to the court’s decision to find Taylor guilty for “aiding and abetting” war crimes.

Accusing the other judges of “hiding to meet” during the “most important part of the deliberations, which was the criminal responsibility of the accused,” Judge Sow averred that from the evidence gathered in the trial, excluding the part on Liberia, “you don’t have much left” to convict Taylor.

The only question was just one – how to prove the link between Charles Taylor and the crimes committed in Sierra Leone, and not why I entered my Dissenting Opinion. It’s because I couldn’t be indulgent in the face of the countless contradictions, lies, deceptions and manipulations in this trial, and conclude that the accused was guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the crimes he was charged with. You cannot conclude that there was no doubt in your mind when you see all this money spent on witnesses, and part of the money you didn’t know the origin of. I didn’t know where it came from,” Judge Whatmust also be noted is that, not only was much of the prosecution’s charges against Taylor struck down by the judges, including the crux of their case that Taylor was involved in a “joint criminal enterprise” with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), which committed gross human right violations during Sierra Leone’s civil war, but according to some legal experts, it appears that the charge for which Taylor was convicted:“aiding and abetting” the commission for international justice.

The conclusion of the Trial Chamber in Charles Taylor seems based on uncontroversial principles. He or she who provides significant assistance to a  participant in a conflict knowing that the participant is perpetrating atrocities against civilians is guilty of aiding and abetting such crimes. This is straightforward. And it leads to an interesting direction,” says William Schabas, a professor of international law at Middlesex University in London, in a posting on his blog titled: “Charles Taylor Judgment Suggest a More Modest Level of Participation in the Sierra Leone Conflict.

Prof. Schabas, who was also a member of Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, adds:

Moving beyond Sierra Leone, can we not blame the French government for aiding and abetting genocide, given its support for the racist Rwandan regime in 1993 and 1994? The crimes of the regime were well-publicised, not only by an NGO commission of inquiry but also by Special Rapporteurs of the United Nations. And yet the French continued to provide assistance, in personnel, arms and ammunition, to the Habyarimana regime.

The question then is: why hasn’t some high ranking French official(s) been brought to trial for “aiding and abetting” the genocide that took place in Rwanda? And for good measure, there have been reports of crimes of war by the Syrian rebels in their fight against the Assad regime, so does that mean held liable for aiding and abetting the commission of war crimes in Syria because of the US military support for the rebels?

To that question, some might rightly retort: “Hell will freeze over before that happens!

A Travesty of Justice for Liberians

But, be that as it may, one thing must be made crystal clear: this is certainly NO attempt to “defend” Charles Taylor as it were, a man who is responsible for great sufferings and death of thousands of people in Liberia, and for that matter, Sierra Leone.

What most Liberians struggle with though is that, notwithstanding all the death and destruction Taylor wrought upon their nation warlord-extraordinaire of the Liberian civil conflict, which resulted in over 250,000 deaths, why is there such an apparent attempt to twist the arms of Lady Justice to convict Taylor for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone when the preponderance of evidence of Taylor’s culpability for war crimes points to Liberia?

That for quite a number of Liberians—and notwithstanding the world’s leading media concoction of this fairytale-like narrative of Taylor’s verdict as being “the end of impunity”—makes the whole affair, more than a year later, seem like such a travesty of justice!

And this is magnified all the more when the country’s former warlords, who along with Taylor were found liable by Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to bear the greatest responsibility for “gross human rights violations and war crimes” during the country’s 14-year atrocious civil war their crimes, and in effect, thumb their noses at the system of international justice.

A case in point, FrontpageAfrica, one of the country’s leading dailies, recently quoted Prince Johnson, a former Liberian warlord notorious for using his silver pistol to publicly execute people for all manner of whimsical reasons during the height of the Liberian civil carnage, blatantly saying that he has “no remorse” and castigating Jerome Verdier, a human rights lawyer and the former head of the country’s TRC.

Jerome Verdier needs to go to a mental home. When he wrote that bogus report that was filled with nothing but incrimination without evidence—that report was thrown into the garbage bin. I knew from the onset that report would never go anywhere because you don’t incriminate prominent people in this country without evidence,” Johnson, the former leader of the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia, reportedly said.

The TRC report, which was released in 2009, recommended that Taylor, Johnson, George Boley, Alhaji Kromah, Thomas Yaya Nimley and Sekou Damate Conneh, all former heads of rebel armies, among others, be tried for war crimes. The commission arrived at its decision based on, among other things, the statements of over 20,000 statement givers.

The Commission’s report though, as Johnson so brutally puts it, has literally been “thrown into the garbage bin.” And most observers believe this is so because, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is the country’s president and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, was also recommended, along with other prominent Liberians, for debarment from public office for 30 years for her financial support for Taylor during the early stages of the country’s civil war.

So while justice hangs in limbo, Liberians continue to be subjugated to such invectives by Johnson, now a Senator in the Liberian Legislature, and his elk.

That notwithstanding, if there wasn’t such an underlying tragedy to the whole affair, Johnson’s tirade about “you don’t incriminate prominent people in this country without evidence,” would surely be cast into the garbage bin of laughable.

Who was more prominent then Samuel K. Doe, the former president of Liberia who Johnson captured and tortured to death, recording much of the sadistic spectacle on video? And what evidence did he have against President Doe, might we ask? At least for Johnson, the TRC has gathered a trove of evidence against him which has been cast into the “garbage bin,” a fact that must certainly be sweet music to his ears.

But, if Taylor’s verdict is to be seen by Liberians as simply a case of the righteous tide of justice running its course as some would into those 20,000 statements to try Taylor, along with Johnson and the others for their crimes in Liberia? And in Taylor’s war crimes trial in particular, this might after all present a tighter legal case, rather than as it seems, subjecting the whole system of international justice to a spectacle of double-standard justice, and as Judge Sow warned, putting the whole system in “grave danger of just losing all credibility”?

Otherwise, it remains exceedingly hard for Liberians to buy into the fairytale-like narrative of “the end of impunity” because, as far as they are concerned, it is just that: a fairytale.

Moco McCaulay is a freelance writer.

 

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