Face to face with Charles Taylor (Part 4)

(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?

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