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.
His case has already made a contribution to war-crimes jurisprudence. He was indicted at a time when he was president of Liberia, and the right of an international court to override the traditional immunity of a head of state was in some legal doubt. His challenge to the indictment enabled the court to rule that sitting presidents no longer have impunity: they can be arrested by U.N. courts for crimes against humanity. On this precedent, the international-criminal-court prosecutor had no legal compunction in indicting Gaddafi when he was ruler of Libya or Laurent Gbagbo while he was still claiming the presidency of Ivory Coast.
The Taylor trial will serve in other respects as a useful guide to avoiding the mess that was made of the trial of Saddam Hussein. Taylor’s trial was moved from Freetown to The Hague because of security concerns. There, he has been tried fairly by independent international judges, unlike the politically manipulated jurists who condemned Saddam. Taylor will not face the death penalty (he would inevitably receive a long sentence if convicted and the U.K. has agreed for him to serve it in an English prison). This would be a more just and seemly result than the obscene cellphone pictures of the hanging of Hussein or the lynch law visited upon Gaddafi.
If Charles Taylor is acquitted, the prosecution can appeal, unlike prosecutors in the U.S. and the U.K. That would keep him in The Hague, perhaps on bail, for several more years. Or he could be returned to Liberia for trial for different offenses under local law. He could not, however, be sent back to Liberia if there were any prospect he could face the death penalty. Once in the custody of international law, even the worst criminal’s life is safe.