Tuesday, April 14

From the ‘rice riots’ to the Special Court for Sierra Leone

Thirty years ago the ‘rice riots’ were the beginning of the end of the Administration of President William Tolbert (1971 – 80). April 14, 1979 - ‘The day Monrovia stood still’, as described by the late Albert Porte, one of Liberia's most independent and prolific writers. A people’s protest against the increase in the price of rice resulted in police firing at demonstrators, killing hundreds maybe more than one thousand Liberians whose only fault it was to no longer accept the one-party rule of the True Whig Party, the political machinery of the Americo-Liberian elite. The ‘rice riots’ announced in a very violent way the end of an era of political stability which, it should be reckognized, was only made possible through the oppression of the majority of the Liberian people by a very small minority, not exceeding five percent of the total population.

Liberia underwent more changes in the thirty years that have passed since that day, April 14, 1979, than in the 150 years preceding it, one is inclined to say. A quarter of a million Liberians dead, many more wounded or traumatized, the modern economy in shambles, infrastructure destroyed, foreign investors chased away. Among the living persons bearing responsibility for most, if not all, destruction, killings, atrocities, cruelties is notably Charles Ghankay Taylor – first as leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), later as president of Liberia.

As I also mentioned in last week’s postings, Charles Taylor is standing before his judges in The Hague, the Netherlands, not because of his role in the civil war in Liberia, but he is being held responsible for his participation in or fueling of the conflict in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

On Thursday (April 9), Special Court for Sierra Leone Prosecution counsel Ms Brenda Hollis made her oral response to the defense submission of no answer (see my April 6 posting). I was very impressed by Ms Hollis, who inevitably repeated a number of the atrocities committed by RUF and AFRC fighters, aided by Charles Taylor as she more than once explained. Interested readers are referred to a detailed account of Ms Hollis’response as published by the webmaster of the Charles Taylor Trial site (‘International Criminal Justice in the Making’).

After Ms Hollis had concluded her submission and the defense counsel Mr Morris Anyah had said that he had no further response, the presiding judge, Ruchard Lussick informed prosecution, defense and the public that a decision on the Motion for Judgement of Acquittal/Submission of No Case to Answer will be rendered on May 4, 2009.

Hence, the Court will resume on May 4, 2009.


Thursday, April 9

Face to face with Charles Taylor (Part 4)
An end to impunity?

(continued from April 8)

Three high-ranking officers of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) – Sierra Leone’s rebel movement which terrorized the population of the West African republic from 1991 to 2002 – were sentenced yesterday in Freetown for crimes against humanity. The Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) found former RUF interim leader Issa Hassan Sesay, former commander Morris Kallon and former Chief of Security Augustine Gbao guilty. Sesay is to serve 52 years in prison, Kallon 40 years, and Gbao 25 years.

The trial of the three men was the last of three held at the Special Court. Five other people have been convicted of war crimes. One, RUF leader Foday Sankoh died in custody. Former Liberian President Charles Taylor is the last one on trial – in The Hague, the Netherlands, for security reasons. Prison conditions in Sierra Leone, while being much less comfortable than those in the Netherlands, would make an escape easy. Mr Taylor is a wealthy and powerful man – he ‘had billions’ in two US accounts, his prosecutor Stephan Rapp declared - and he has proved to be capable of escaping from prison.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone is an independent tribunal set up jointly by the government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations (in 2002). It’s mandate is to try those who bear the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law committed in Sierra Leone since November 30, 1996. The SCSL started its work in 2004.

Financing comes from voluntary contributions. Almost 50 countries contribute, notably the USA, the UK, the Netherlands and Canada. Despite their generous contributions the Special Court actually faces bankruptcy with a deficit of approximately USD 45 million – with a budget of nearly USD 70 million for the 2008 – 10 period. In or after 2010 the SCSL will cease its activities. Mr Taylor will then know where and how he will spend the coming years: behind the bars or as a free man.

Why so many details about the Special Court for Sierra Leone? Why spending some USD 200 million for the prosecution of about ten people? The same amount could relieve the lives of the tens of thousands of surviving victims, those with amputated limbs, those who were raped, whose houses and huts were burned down, whose belongings stolen, whose family members were killed, whose futures were destroyed.

Speaking from the point of view of the Netherlands I can give the answer. Enforcement of the international rule of law is (even) included in the Constitution of the Netherlands, the fight against impunity a priority of the Dutch government. Our Foreign Affairs minister Verhagen and Development Cooperation minister Koenders are uncompromising when it comes to the protection of human rights. According to them (and many others) Mladic, Fujimori, Hissein Habre, Miriam Mengistu, Duch, Omar al-Bashir, should not be allowed to get away with their heinous crimes.

Charles McArthur Ghankay Taylor belongs to the same group. The SCSL prosecution heard more than 90 witnesses since the start of the trial in June 2007. The atrocities they described were almost unbelievable. One of Taylor’s top aides testified that Charles Taylor ordered soldiers to eat their victims. Another witness declared Taylor ordered him to bury a pregnant woman. Witness ‘Zigzag’ Marzah said Taylor ate human hearts, as part of a ritual of the secret Poro Society of which both he and Charles Taylor are a member (also see my March 14 and March 15, 2008 postings on this subject). When I saw Charles Taylor last Monday (see my April 6 posting), I felt no emotions. I saw a good looking, well dressed, polite man, who sat there, before his judges. His face was familiar: I have been following the NPFL-insurrection since its start in 1989. Also the four friends I was with, knew him very well. We have lived in Liberia or Sierra Leone and we all knew what was going on. Two of my friends met Taylor on more than one occasion in Burkina Faso. His friendship with President Compaore gave him a foothold in the capital Ouagadougou, where he now and then stayed during the first period of the Liberian civil war (1989 – 97).

However, sitting face to face with Charles Taylor, and listening to the defense counsel, Mr Morris Anyah, I increasingly felt uncomfortable and nauseatic. (Forcible) recruitment of child soldiers, rape, sexual abuse, limb amputations, torture, killings, cannibalism, human right violations, diamonds-for-weapons-business. The defense elaborated on the lack of proof, the unreliability of witnesses, the mis-spelling of names of villages. Meanwhile Mr Charles Taylor took notes, listened attentively, corrected even his defense lawyer.

I left the court room somewhat desperate and confused. It is good we have the rule of law. It is good we protect the fundamental human rights – also of those who are accused of the most horrible acts. Nobody is guilty before (s)he is found guilty, after a fair trial. It is better to free the accused not found guilty because of insufficient evidence than to condemn someone who is not guilty. All these one-liners came to my mind. Am I ready to accept this in the case of Charles Taylor?


Wednesday, April 8

Ellen: 'I supported Taylor...'
Face to face with Charles Taylor (Part 3)

(continued from April 7)

Though the SCSL's mandate is clear and very distinct from the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC), the two are often related in the case of Taylor's activities. Three recent testimonies before the TRC are worth mentioning in this respect, the first perhaps being the most sensational since confirming the role played by now President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in the support of Charles Taylor in his effort to overthrow President Samuel Doe (1980 - 90).

1) On February 12, 2009 President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf testified before the TRC, denying she was ever a member of any of the warring factions but admitting she made a financial contribution of USD 10,000 to the NPLF - before turning her back to Charles Taylor in a very early stage of the conflict. She apologized to the Liberian people. It was not the first time she publicly admitted this financial support; she already acknowledged it during the campaign for the past presidential elections. She also mentions it in her autobiographic book, 'This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa's First Woman President', published yesterday (April 7). 2) According to a testimony on February 18, 2009, Charles Taylor, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Ibrahim Bah (RUF) and a retired Italian agent of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) organized a company, smuggling Liberian and Sierra Leonean diamonds in exchange for weapons. It was also said that Bah collaborated with Libyan leader Gaddafi and Taylor to form a rebel group which was then operating in the Sierra Leonean jungle after fighting in Liberia.

3) Patrick Alley, Global Witnness Director, on February 20, 2009 testified that Charles Taylor, Ibrahim Bah and Samuel Bockarie had links with Al Queda. They were involved in this organization's diamonds for arms deal and other business deals in Sierra Leone and Liberia whch yielded them significant financial gains. Mr Taylor also received USD 1 million for harboring two Al Queda operatives at the Gbartala base in Bong County after September 11, 2001 ('9-11'). Reports of Taylor's links with Al Queda are not new, however. It is expected that Charles Taylor will be the first witness in his own war crimes trial this summer. Will he speak as a former warlord, as a former president or as a well dressed millionaire-businessman?

A verdict in the war crimes trial of Charles Taylor is expected early 2010.

To be continued..


Tuesday, April 7

Face to face with Charles Taylor (Part 2)

(continued from April 6)

It was to be expected that the defence would like to have all charges against former Liberian President Charles Taylor dismissed. His counsel, Mr Morris Anyah, argued in a lenghty submission that took all day (yesterday) that the evidence presented was too flimsy to warrant a conviction. He acknowledged that terrible things had happened in Sierra Leone during the 11-year conflict, but denied Charles Taylor’s role in the planning or execution of the atrocities which resulted in hundreds of thousands of victims.

After Mr Anyah concluded his submission, prosecution counsel Ms. Brenda Hollis responded announcing that the prosecution wants to respond on April 9, which was accepted by the judges. Hence, the prosecution response will take place at 9:30 A.M. this Thursday.

I will not easily forget the looks of Mr Taylor during this day. I observed him closely and was astonished by the lack of emotions. It was only at two occasions that I noted a different attitude. One was at 10:30 A.M. when the defence counsel elaborated on the accusation of enlisting child soldiers. The former Liberian president then nervously moved in his chair, visibly feeling uncomfortable. The second time was when the death of Samuel Bockarie, aka Mosquito, was mentioned. It is widely believed that Samuel Bockarie, a one time ally of Charles Taylor, was murdered with his family upon orders of the warlord turned President. Mr Taylor frantically wrote notes during this episode of Mr Anyah’s submission.

It is recalled that Samuel Bockarie was one of Mr Taylor's top commanders in both Sierra Leone and Liberia. He was also involved in the conflict in neighbouring Ivory Coast, assassinating Ivorian rebel leader Felix Doh upon orders of then President Taylor. After the prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone had indicted Samuel Bockarie in March 2003, accusing him of crimes against humanity, General Mosquito, as Sam Bockarie was also known, threatened to 'spill the beans' if he were handed over to the SCSL. After killing Bockarie, Taylor's troops also executed his wife, his mother and at least three of his children. The Liberian Government's promise to investigate the circumstances surrounding the mysterious death of the former warlord never resulted in more clarity.

But Charles Taylor does not stand trial for the killing of Sam Bockarie and his family since this took place in Liberia. The SCSL's mandate is limited to crimes committed in Sierra Leone. Liberia has decided not to use an international tribunal for the prosecution of those accused of atrocities during the country's 14-years civil war, but instead it has opted for a Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC).
To be continued..


Monday, April 6

The Special Court for Sierra Leone - Face to face with Charles Taylor (Part 1)

He was impeccably dressed, wearing a double-breasted suit, a blue-silver tie and shaded, gold-rimmed glasses, each hand decorated with a big golden ring. When former Liberian President Charles Taylor entered the court room at 9:25 A.M. this morning, he cordially greeted his defence lawyers, looked at the public, then sat down – at about five yards distance from where I sat. When his eyes met mine, it seemed as if he nodded – he greeted me I thought, and automatically I greeted back.

At 9:30 A.M. sharp the court session was opened. The trial against the 61-year old former leader – once the most wanted man in West Africa – had resumed. Today, April 6, Taylor’s defence team was making its No Case Submission (Rule 98 Submission). This submission is an oral submission by the defence that the prosecution has not proved it’s case or has not rendered sufficient evidence on one or more of the counts in the indictment. I will leave the legal technicalities out here, those interested can read more here.

The 11 charges against Charles Taylor include acts of terrorism, unlawful killings, enlisting child soldiers, planning of a joint criminal enterprise. According to the prosecution he and the late Foday Sankoh, leader of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), connived to bring the diamond-rich regions of Sierra Leone under their control and each promised the other to give assistance to topple the sitting regime: Doe in Liberia and Momoh in Sierra Leone. The promise dated back to their stay in Muammar Gaddafi's Libya where they received a military training in the late 1980s.

Interestingly, another alliance linked Charles Taylor to then captain Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso (though not discussed during this session of the Special Court for Sierra Leone). Taylor promised Compaoré to help get rid of (then President) Thomas Sankara in exchange for Compaoré’s assistance in chasing Doe. Whereas any involvement of Charles Taylor in the killing of President Sankara in October 1987 has never been proved, the participation of Burkinabe soldiers in the NPFL-invasion of Liberia on Christmas Eve 1989 is an historic fact.

The accused showed little, if any, emotions while Mr Morris Anyah, one of his his lawyers, spoke. In general, the defence counsel did a tremendous good job, I admired his eloquence and competence. Charles Taylor listened carefully and made notes; on two occasions he corrected him, when his defence confused the year in which an alleged act took place. I could not help thinking of the high costs of the Special Court (about USD 200 million) and that he - Mister Taylor or Charles Taylor as he often was referred to during the trial - had a much better treatment than most if not all of his victims.

To be continued..