It was another bravado performance in The Hague from Charles Taylor, who looked gentle and unassuming as he asked for leniency. Almost tempted to believe him, SIMON ALLISON recalls that no amount of smooth talking can erase the horrors the man inflicted on Sierra Leone.
Watching Charles Taylor defend himself is a disconcerting experience. You know he is responsible for the rapes, the murders, the child soldiers. The court knows it too, that’s why he was found guilty earlier this month on 11 charges of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity, all related to the actions of his rebel movement in Sierra Leone. And yet the man standing before the court does not look like a killer. On the contrary: gentle, distinguished, avuncular spring to mind. You almost want to believe him.
The judges, fortunately, won’t be swayed that easily. On Wednesday, Taylor addressed the Special Court for Sierra Leone in a speech carried live on TV networks across the world, hoping to persuade the judges to go easy on him when it comes to sentencing. He’s a man of peace, apparently, and should be remembered not for the violence but for the reconciliation process which he initiated in Liberia. He’s a family man, with children and grandchildren who will miss him.
And he’s a wronged man, victim of a biased international justice system.
“What I did… was done with honour," he said. "I was convinced that unless there was peace in Sierra Leone, Liberia would not be able to move forward.”
The former Liberian president dwelt long on the injustice of the verdict – a tactic unlikely to impress the judges. “George Bush not long ago ordered torture and admitted to doing so. Where is the fairness?” said Taylor. “I never stood a chance. Only time will tell how many other African heads of state will be destroyed.”
And he had harsh words for the conduct of the trial itself, accusing the prosecution of bribing witnesses to testify against him. “Witnesses were paid, coerced and in many cases threatened with prosecution if they did not give statements…Families were rewarded with thousands of dollars to cover costs of children's school fees, transportation, food, clothing, medical bills and given cash allowances for protected and non-protected witnesses in a country where income is less than a dollar a day.”
This last claim has been a controversial issue throughout the trial, where the defence has accused the prosecution of using a special discretionary fund to pay relatively large sums to witnesses. But the argument is a red herring; with or without such witnesses (giving the claim a credence it hardly deserves), there was enough testimony to convict Taylor.
Taylor’s combative posture did not surprise Annie Gell, a legal researcher for Human Rights Watch’s international justice programme who has been following the case closely. “Taylor's address to the court today echoed themes that his defence team has brought up throughout the trial, so there was nothing particularly surprising about his arguments,” Gell said. “His discussion of other world leaders’ potentially culpable of serious crimes does nothing to explain or excuse his own culpability for the atrocities committed during the armed conflict of Sierra Leone.”
Prosecutor Brenda Hollis was even more dismissive of Taylor’s plea for leniency. “The purposely cruel and savage crimes committed included public executions and amputations, the display of decapitated heads at checkpoints, the killing and public disembowelment of a civilian whose intestines were then stretched across the road to make a check point, public rapes of women and girls and people burnt alive in their homes,” Hollis said in a briefing just before Taylor’s speech. One suspects her graphic descriptions were a quite deliberate – and effective – technique to discredit Taylor’s defence.
The prosecution is calling for an 80-year sentence. Some are criticising this as overly harsh, and a violation of the court’s mandate, which prevents it from handing down life sentences. But this argument seems largely irrelevant given Taylor’s advanced age. He’s already 80 and can’t have all that much longer left; pretty much whatever sentence the prosecution calls for will amount to a life sentence for him.
The sentence will be announced on 30 May and will be closely watched by the legal community. As this is the first time a former head of state has been found guilty by an international court, any court decisions form an important precedent for future cases. But the most important precedent has already been set: not even presidents are immune from justice.
For Sierra Leone, where most of Taylor’s atrocities occurred, the verdict against him provides at least some measure of satisfaction. “Sierra Leone's war victims can never be made whole,” commented Gell. “But victims and civil society leaders in Sierra Leone and Liberia have told me that Taylor's trial and the verdict against him have sent a strong signal that impunity is no longer the rule and the possibility of justice does exist, even when the accused is at the highest levels of power. Sierra Leoneans and Liberians have also told me that Taylor's trial and conviction have freed many in the sub-region from the looming fear of his return and helped bolster a feeling that long-term stability and peace is attainable.” And that, if it happens, will be the best justice of all. DM
- War criminal Charles Taylor appeals for ‘reconciliation not retribution’ in the Guardian.
- Charles Taylor says West manipulating war crimes courts on Reuters.
Photo: Former Liberian President Charles Taylor attends his trial at the Special Court for Sierra Leone based in Leidschendam, outside The Hague, May 16, 2012. Taylor will on Wednesday tell judges he bears no responsibility for atrocities during Sierra Leone's 11-year civil war, rejecting the prosecution's demand for an 80-year sentence in a maximum-security British jail. REUTERS/Evert-Jan Daniels/Pool.