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08.18.10

Watching the Charles Taylor Trial from Liberia

From Monrovia, Liberian peace activist and Daily Beast Africa columnist Leymah Gbowee watches former President Charles Taylor’s war crimes trial, wishes it were being held in Africa, and revels in its threat to other despots.

MONROVIA, Liberia—It’s a strange experience watching Charles Taylor’s war crimes trial from the center of this city, where destruction from the conflict he began remains evident everywhere. The recent testimony of celebrities Naomi Campbell and Mia Farrow also made me think of a Liberian proverb: The sweetness of the pounded rice dust in the mortar is what causes the young goat’s head to be stuck there. (Or as an American would put it, it’s what you love most that gets you in the end.) During the years Taylor ruled Liberia, we all heard stories about diamonds being mined and brought to him in their rough form, enough of them to fill a big mayonnaise jar. And we didn’t need stories to know that he was a playboy. He himself went on the radio to say that every Liberian man was free to marry three, four, five women if he could find them.

Now the former president’s love of diamonds and women—an act of flirting and showing off at a dinner party 13 years ago—could be what provides the evidence that convicts him and sends him to jail at the conclusion of his trial at The Hague, which has dragged on for three years and continues this week.

Taylor should have been jailed in Africa. In Sierra Leone or Liberia, his prison cell would have a bare concrete floor, not a bed. There would be no TV or air-conditioning.

I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about the trial. Every time I watch, I think about how many individuals in Sierra Leone would have benefited from the amount of money— $20 million, by some accounts—being spent on it. Taylor was in power between 1997 and 2003 and fought a bloody war in neighboring Sierra Leone, sponsoring a rebel movement that forced children to become soldiers and sex slaves, and traded blood diamonds for weapons.

I also believe his trial should have been held in Africa. He should have been jailed in Africa. In Sierra Leone or Liberia, his prison cell would have a bare concrete floor, not a bed. There would be no TV or air-conditioning. He would not have the right to visitation and sex with his latest wife, who recently delivered a child. That is the most disgusting part of the entire process to me, a mockery of justice and a total disservice to war victims. Even in Europe and America, where people are presumed innocent until proven guilty, someone on trial for the murder of just one person is not given the right to have sex. And Charles Taylor is being tried for the murder of thousands and the mutilation of thousands more.

That’s in Sierra Leone. If we were examining his role in the Liberian civil war, he’d be accused of much more: the death of five Catholic nuns and of seven Senegalese soldiers killed in 1992 by his fighters during his attack on Monrovia, the slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians during the war he began, the mass rape of Liberian women, the destruction of a generation of children who were drugged and turned into his fighters.

If Taylor is acquitted, I don’t think his troubles will be over. I think it’s very likely he will be slapped with arrest warrants for all the deaths for which he’s responsible in Liberia. If he is convicted, I wish the wealth he stole could be tracked down and some form of restitution offered to those who suffered the most from his actions. (This may seem an impossible dream, but the trial is an indication that anything is possible.) Money should go to rape victims; the young fighters, who are now in their 20s and 30s, and who must be rehabilitated for the security of Liberia; and their children, so we don’t lose another generation of young people. And there should be payments to the country itself, still in desperate need of funds for reconstruction.

Most Liberians, after all, haven’t watched the Taylor trial on television because much of the city of Monrovia remains without electricity. We still don’t have running water or sanitation services. The vast majority of the population is too poor and exhausted to worry about justice at The Hague; they are just trying to survive.

Despite all my reservations, I believe this trial is a good thing for Africa. It tells those in power: If you think you can commit the most horrendous of crimes against your own people or against those in another country with total impunity, you are wrong. There will be justice. You will pay. Let it be known, Robert Mugabe and Omar al-Bashir, that if Charles Taylor is facing time in prison, you may be next.

The Liberian peace and women's rights activist Leymah Gbowee is The Daily Beast's Africa columnist. As war ravaged Liberia, Leymah Gbowee realized it is women who bear the greatest burden in prolonged conflicts. She began organizing Christian and Muslim women to demonstrate together, founding Liberian Mass Action for Peace and launching protests and a sex strike. Gbowee's work in helping to oust Charles Taylor was featured in the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell.