Sierra Leone: And what if Taylor walks?

Report
from International Justice Tribune
Published on 24 Aug 2010 View Original
Former Liberian president Charles Taylor, is in court to defend himself on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity he allegedly committed in Liberia's neighbour to the west, Sierra Leone. Liberian media cover the trial extensively but Liberians are, to all intents and purposes, mere spectators. This trial is not about them. Liberia lacks a war crimes tribunal. What it does have is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission which has been taking countless statements from war crimes victims and perpetrators and whose report is in the public domain (www.trcofliberia.org).

By Bram Posthumus

The UN and the Sierra Leone government installed the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) in 2002. In June 2003, David Crane, its chief prosecutor, had Taylor indicted for war crimes allegedly committed in Sierra Leone. Two months later, Taylor left Liberia in the midst of chaos and bloody struggle as rebels pounded the capital Monrovia with mortars. His departure was the result of a deal struck principally between himself, the Economic Community for West African States and the African Union, the nub of it being that he would not be arrested and would stay out of Liberian politics. Taylor went to stay in Calabar, Nigeria.

What changed? Anyone's guess but late March 2006 the world was treated to the bizarre spectacle of Taylor first "disappearing" from his villa, days before Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo was supposed to meet US president George W Bush, and then Nigerian security forces miraculously "finding" Taylor again near the border with Cameroon. (International Justice Tribunal reported on that chain of events here: http://www.rnw.nl/international-justice/article/why-try-taylor-hague) A few days later, Taylor was in The Hague and Obasanjo had his meeting with Bush.

The prosecution at the SCSL has been presenting the world with victims: amputated limbs, rape victims, horror stories. No one denies these things happened, but the question is: how hard is it to prove that Charles Taylor is personally responsible for these atrocities?

The spectacle of Ms Campbell at the SCSL gives you the answer: very hard. Current chief prosecutor Brenda Hollis has to work with the legacy left behind by a lawyer who scored a major political point and earned his place in history but did not appear too concerned about the consequences. Given the robust and professional defence Taylor enjoys, Crane's indictment may, in the end, facilitate the ex-president's return to Liberia. As he said himself, before he stepped on that plane to Nigeria in August 2003 in the driving rain: 'God willing...I'll be back'.

Will people vote for him if he stands? One Liberian banker puts it succinctly: 'At the end of the day, people don't care too much about human rights and rule of law. They want to eat!' Reggae musician and Bob Marley admirer, Lawrence Kotokpo, says he'll vote for Taylor if he stands. Why? 'This one,' he says while pointing at his stomach, 'is the boss.' He is not alone: rice was cheap during Taylor's reign.

The only thing standing in the way of Taylor's renewed bid for office is the recommendation from Liberia's own TRC, which says that anyone involved in the war should not hold public office for 30 years. However, this recommendation has already been royally ignored by the current president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who was once a fundraiser for Mr Taylor.

To be fair: she has openly acknowledged this but has also decided this should not have consequences. She is standing for a second turn - which, incidentally, constitutes a broken promise. So what then is to stop Taylor's return? Only serious political horse-trading at the Special Court for Sierra Leone.