Tomorrow in The Hague the judges in what has been one of the lengthiest and most unusual legal battles ever to have been fought on the international stage are due to deliver the verdict on a man who over the past decade has variously been a deposed president under house arrest in Nigeria, a prisoner awaiting trial and a defendant in the dock of a specially-convened international court. After a process which has run for a combined total of some nine years since his original indictment, Charles Ghankay Taylor now awaits judgement before the judges at the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The court, which is a joint project of the United Nations and the Government of Sierra Leone, was enshrined in the peace agreement which brought the latter country’s bloody, decade-long civil war to an end in early 2002.
The verdict in the trial of Charles Taylor, former President of the Republic of Liberia will also mark the climax of the unprecedented experiment in international justice which the Special Court represents. But when the judges announce their decision tomorrow morning it will almost certainly not be the end of the story.
Not only has the process of Taylor’s indictment, apprehension and trial been incredibly lengthy, it has been costly and controversial too. The Taylor trial, which began in April 2006 in Freetown, Sierra Leone, before being moved to The Hague, has been characterized by delays of all kinds. The transfer of the court across continents, the changes of counsel, the procedural objections, the need to accommodating the large numbers of witnesses called and cross-examined by both sides and their often extensive testimonies, together with other holdups and hiatuses have all caused the trial to last far longer than anticipated at the outset.
In June 2007, Charles Taylor sacked his entire defence team. Finding and engaging a new lead council, the prominent British QC Courtenay Griffiths and his replacement defence team delayed the proceedings by over six months. The original location of the court in Sierra Leone’s capital was changed to the Netherlands shortly after the trial began in 2006, due to concerns that the proceedings might reignite hostilities in the war-torn region.
During the trial Taylor received legal assistance of $100,000 per month, which together with the location of the forum and the five-star calibre of the legal representation of both sides made the process an enormously costly affair, estimated at some $35-$40 million per year. By its conclusion, it may end up having cost the international taxpayer (mostly in the United States) close to $250 million, and probably much more than that, if and when the verdict leads to an appeal.
Charles Taylor’s guilt or innocence hangs on whether or not he assisted and directed the Sierra Leonean rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), from the end of November 1996, the date of the signing of the Abuja accord – an international agreement concluded in the Nigerian capital and designed to bring peace to the region – until 18 January 2002, the date when the Sierra Leone Civil War was officially brought to an end.
For most of that time, Taylor was president of Liberia, elected overwhelmingly in an internationally supervised and accepted vote in July 1997, but previously himself the leader of a rebel group in his native country which came close on a number of occasions to taking power by force of arms. The main focus of the case was to review evidence that Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Front for Liberia (NPFL), proactively took the side of the rebels in Sierra Leone in contravention of the Abuja agreement and contrary to the pronouncements of the Liberian government itself that it was not involved.
The main thrust of the prosecution’s case hinged on showing that in addition to being present militarily in Sierra Leone, Taylor’s government and army were responsible for either arming the RUF during that period, or for directing it and its leadership in their actions and thereby being responsible and culpable for the war crimes and crimes against humanity which occurred. Despite the barrage of media rhetoric and international hostility directed against Taylor for his role in the Liberian Civil War and other conflicts in the region, the prosecution was unable to present a definitive paper trail directly linking Taylor to a protagonist’s role in Sierra Leone during the period under examination by the court.
Taylor’s own testimony in the trial lasted a total of fourteen weeks, during which time he was sometimes allowed leeway to give long and often off-topic answers to relatively straightforward questions. Despite the protests of the prosecution about this on a number of occasions, the court largely gave the accused the benefit of the doubt when their challenges were issued. Some observers have suggested that the apparent leniency extended to the defendant was a result of Taylor’s unique position as a former leader from a desperately poor African country, on trial before the world and in a forum largely conceived and almost entirely funded by the great world powers, including states which were former colonists of Africa itself.
The trial’s conception, jurisdiction and indeed legal legitimacy have been questioned at various times, not just by the accused and his supporters. Certainly, there are apparent ironies in the way in which justice is being meted out by the Special Court, which only considers events and alleged crimes committed in Sierra Leone, not in Taylor’s native Liberia. Although Charles Taylor could allegedly be held responsible for many more deaths and much greater destruction in his own country than he ever caused directly or indirectly in Sierra Leone, it was nevertheless his transgressions of international law in the latter country which finally brought about the issuance of an international warrant for his arrest in 2003 for the second time in twenty years. The first time was in the early 1980s, when he was forced to flee Liberia, then under the brutal dictatorship of the US-backed Samuel-Doe, on embezzlement charges relating to his period as head of procurement in the Doe Administration.
The paradox of the present legal proceedings is poignant for many in Liberian civil society who still hold an unrequited yearning for accountability and reconciliation for the crimes committed against them, despite Taylor’s departure from the scene in Monrovia over eight years ago.
Many Liberians who were victims of the struggle in their country remain hungry for justice to be done in respect of their own civil conflict – although others would now rather forget and move on – but whether Charles Taylor should be found innocent or be shown leniency tomorrow by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Liberians denied justice will then wonder what recourse they should then be entitled to, with the international community now unlikely to have the appetite nor the resources for a further lengthy and expensive trial for events which are now over a decade in the past.
Colin Waugh is the author of “Charles Taylor and Liberia: Ambition and Atrocity in Africa’s Lone Star State“ published in the UK by Zed books.