Charles Taylor Verdict: In Sierra Leone, 99 Days For a Thief, Just 1 for Police

As we say in Sierra Leone, 99 days for a thief, one day for police. 

After almost six years, the Special Court of Sierra Leone (SCSL), sitting at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in The Hague, has delivered its verdict against Charles Dakpannah Ghankay Taylor, former head of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and president of Liberia from 1997 to 2003. Taylor was charged in an 11-count indictment alleging responsibility for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed by rebel forces in Sierra Leone during the country’s decade-long civil war. He was also charged with conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 years into armed forces or groups, or using them to participate actively in hostilities in violation of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. He pleaded not guilty to all counts.

The Court found Taylor guilty of aiding and abetting rebels on all counts, but the prosecution failed to prove that he had command and control over the rebels, said Justice Richard Lussick of the SCSL. To be found directly responsible, Taylor must have been in effective command and control of rebel groups in Sierra Leone, operating directly under his supervision like his own NPFL, the rebel movement he used to destroy his country, Liberia. Since Foday Sankoh, leader of the Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone (RUF), was mostly responsible for the command and control of fighting forces in Sierra Leone, the Prosecution struggled to prove that Taylor’s involvement amounted to such direct involvement as to establish effective command and control.

The Taylor trial opened in June 2007 at The Hague after it was transferred from Freetown, Sierra Leone, where other accused were tried, for security concerns. The case was adjourned immediately after the opening statement, when Taylor dismissed his Defense counsel and requested new representation. Witness testimony commenced a year later and ended in 2010. Overall, the Court heard live testimony from 94 prosecution witnesses, and received written statements from four additional witnesses. Defense counsel presented 21 witnesses, and Taylor also testified in his own behalf. Closing arguments occurred in February and March 2011. According to Special Court Registrar, Binta Mansaray, the reason for the delay in issuing the verdict is that Judges had to read through more than 50,000 pages of witness testimony, and examine over 1,500 exhibits offered in evidence.

This year marks a decade since the end of the civil war in Sierra Leone and many Sierra Leoneans are still trying to pull the pieces of their shattered lives together in an extremely impoverished country. The Taylor verdict marks a closure to a decade of terror and horror in a country previously known for its peacefulness. More than 50,000 people were killed, more than 30,000 conscripted as child soldiers, and close to 500,000 civilians were displaced during the civil war that lasted a decade. Rape was constantly employed as an instrument of war and thousands of people, including children, got their limbs chopped off by rebels. Taylor was head of the NPFL, the first group of rebels to invade Sierra Leone under the command of Corporal Foday Sankoh of the RUF. Sankoh died during trial at the Special Court of Sierra Leone in Freetown. 

A sentencing hearing will be held on May 16th, after which Taylor will be sentenced on the 30th. As SCSL enters its closing phase, the government of Sierra Leone must continue to work with victims and perpetrators such as former child soldiers who continue to face tremendous difficulties surviving in a poor and ravaged country. Many amputees still haven’t received the assistance promised them during the peace process that brought the war to an end, most child soldiers didn’t receive adequate trauma healing, and many rape victims are living with internalized pain and grief. 

As Taylor gets closer to his sentence, Sierra Leoneans must now concentrate on dealing with remnants of the past. We must discuss the issues that pitched us against each other in a brutal conflict that left painful scars in the hearts of so many of our people. The government must do its best to provide appropriate services to amputees, the war-wounded, and many rape victims, who bear the physical and mental scars of past atrocities. Many Sierra Leoneans are not familiar with formalized psychotherapy; so ordinary Sierra Leoneans should offer the community guidance and support needed. The goal of bringing to justice those who bear the greatest responsibilities for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone has been achieved, and Sierra Leoneans must now concentrate on rebuilding our lives.