Charles Taylor’s Hague Sentence Sparks War Crimes Debate In Liberia

Liberia wrestles with whether to prosecute Liberia's former warlords in the wake of Hague trial.

Toussaint Kluiters / AP Photo

In downtown Monrovia this morning, the city was abuzz with its usual clamor and jangle—men rolling tin boxes of cow meat and wheelbarrows of bread down the streets, motorcycles zipping in between beat-up yellow taxis, skinny teenage boys from Guinea polishing dirty shoes. The city barely paused, even as Liberia’s former president Charles Taylor sat thousands of miles away in a courtroom in the Hague. There he listened with closed eyes as Judge Richard Lussick, of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, sentenced him to 50 years in prison for aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity during Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war. The judge described the crimes that Taylor helped aid and abet—including public rapes, amputations, decapitations, and disembowelments by Sierra Leone’s rebel forces, according to the prosecution--as among the most “heinous and brutal” in human history.

While few Liberians seemed focused on their former president’s fate this morning, his presence is carved into Monrovia’s landscape: the bullet-ridden walls; the razed structures and hollow buildings whose glassless windows frame patches of city, sea and sky; the crippled ex-combatants who haunt the entrances of expensive supermarkets on Randall Street. While the city has changed significantly since the war, the remaining wreckage and rubble are continual reminders of Liberia’s traumatic past and the psychological damage that Taylor and his forces inflicted on their own country, in addition to Sierra Leone. Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has found that 250,000 people died in the country’s two civil wars that spanned from 1989-2003. During that time, alleged atrocities ranged from rape and murder to mutilation and cannibalism, according to the Commission. Throughout these years,Taylor was one of the chief rebel leaders and, later, the democratically-elected president.

But Liberians have a complex relationship with Taylor that can be difficult for outsiders to comprehend. For Taylor had many incarnations: gallant liberator and protector; father, and provider—but also cruel dictator and tyrant. Taylor’s supporters are still numerous, and many complained today that his 50-year sentence was too harsh.

Ben Slewion, a 37-year-old taxi driver, said he was saddened by the thought that Taylor would not ever return to Liberia. “It’s not fair. Those that testified were paid to testify against him,” he said, echoing remarks made by Taylor in his final address to the court.

“It should be 20 to 30 years, so he can come back to Liberia and we can have an ex-president with us,” he said plaintively as he drove. His lament was a common one among Liberians, who for decades have been used to presidents dying in office—whether by natural causes or, more recently, by assassination.

Jerry Mersa, a plump 38-year-old, remembers Taylor fondly as a president who gave the common man a sense of dignity. “He was the best president we had in Liberia,” he says. “Things were okay when he was here—the common man was able to support himself.”

But for others, Taylor robbed them of their humanity and their future. Peter Tah, who was recruited into Taylor’s rebel faction at age 12 and lost his arm during the fighting, says Taylor got what he deserved—a sentiment not often expressed by “Taylor’s boys,” who often refer to him as "papay" and view him as a father-god.

“Those are the crimes he committed … he’s not better than any of the people who died in this country because of the stupid war he brought here,” he says.

On Carey Street, at the Center for the Promotion of Intellectual Development, one of Mornovia’s many tea shops and political saloons that often came under fire during Taylor’s reign, opinion on the sentencing was divided. Some said the sentence fit the crimes, others argued it was too harsh and that Taylor was a victim of conspiracy. “I know Tony Blair is happy today and I know George Bush is very happy today and they are drinking coffee or champagne now because Charles Taylor has been found criminally guilty and sentenced to an unwarranted 50 years,” bellows a young man named Jowel Hansford, adding that Taylor did not directly commit the crimes and therefore shouldn’t do the time. But Hansford is a strong advocate for a war crimes court in Liberia and argues that all of Liberia’s faction leaders should be tried—even President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf herself, who admitted to (and apologized for) providing financing to Taylor during the early stages of the war. “If Taylor was tried for crimes committed in Liberia I would be the No. 1 person that would carry placards saying, ‘Taylor should be found guilty,’ because we all know what he did here,” Hansford says. “Justice must be equitably distributed ... If Taylor is the only devil, it is unfair.”

Many of the men at tea shops decry what they see to be a double standard of the international community, who went after Taylor while allowing others who played key roles in the war to remain not only free, but in senior positions in the government. Among the most prominent is the senator and former rebel leader Prince Johnson, who appeared in the notorious video that captured the torture and mutilation of former president Samuel Doe. Alhaji Kromah, another faction leader, was made an ambassador-at-large; and former rebel leader George Boley slipped quietly into the country some months ago after being deported from America by the U.S. Government under the 2008 Child Soldiers Accountability Act.

While many Liberians are still divided over the Taylor trial verdict, it has sparked a national debate about whether or not a war-crimes court is the best way forward for Liberia. After the verdict, international human-rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called on Liberia to follow the lead of Sierra Leone and prosecute key figures responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In recent weeks major daily newspapers in Liberia have been running editorials criticizing the “culture of impunity” in Liberia, reigniting the debate as to whether there should be a war-crimes court in the country. While peace activists such as Leymah Gbowee say “not now”—an attitude shared by Taylor’s ex-wife, the senator Jewel Howard Taylor, who told Newsweek/The Daily Beast before the verdict that “it would only break us apart and further deepen the divide”—other civil-society members such as human-rights lawyer Tiawan Gongloe suggest that the Taylor trial will pave the way for the pursuit of prosecutions in Liberia. Just last week, controversy arose when a commissioner from the nation’s Independent National Human Rights Commission (INHRC) was quoted by media outlets as saying that the body would be forwarding names of Liberians to the International Criminal Court to be considered for prosecution.

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Leroy Urey, chairman of the commission, said the statement did not reflect the view of the body. Commissioner Thomas Bureh, who was quoted in various Liberian media outlets, has stepped away from the comment and said that reconciliation should be Liberia’s primary focus. According to a report by Front Page Africa, Mr. Urey accused Mr. Bureh of receiving bribes to make the statement: “I think Bureh has been tampered with by people in the erstwhile TRC and the international community, especially UNMIL,” said Mr. Urey, according to the report. “He has received bribes to go on the air in my absence and say what he said to the press. This attitude of Bureh has caused the commission complete embarrassment.”

While Taylor’s trial has nearly come to a close, with an appeal pending, it has reignited a debate over who was responsible for the civil war in Liberia and how they should be held accountable.