Monday, April 30, 2012

Taylor’s Verdict: From the Accounts of an Eye Witness in the Hague

Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei

In 2003 I was a senior high school student in Monrovia – then a tense and violent city under siege by two rebel movements - one from the Northwest and the other from the Southeast. In the city and in areas controlled by Taylor’s Government forces, there was of course no difference from those controlled by the rebels. It was terrifying, and on many occasions, we ran from school fearing attacks and stray bullets. During this time, I had joined many other young people and we have all been introduced to resistant street politics in the city. Mobilizing against the increasing militarization and the conscription of children (students) into government militias for what Taylor called to ‘defend the country’. At several times, we had to be indoor the whole day hiding from militia commanders chasing young men and sending them to ‘defend the country’. Then at some points we will assemble for demonstrations against the system. In no time, the local civil pressure and international pressure where increasing against the state of affairs. The rebels were swiftly advancing on the city. The state of emergency declared in 2002 was in force and the infamous decree of ‘No public gathering’, aimed at disbursing and deterring civic demonstrations was strictly enforced.

June 4, 2003: No one knew exactly who broke the news, but Monrovia ran helter-skelter, and we all ran from school. I didn’t know what was going on, but of course I had to run and take cover before inquiring. So I reached home, and tried to connect with other youth and student activists…this was impossible as everyone was busy first with personal safety. After several phone calls, I got to know that the President of Liberia, Mr. Charles Taylor, who had gone to open a peace conference on Liberia in Accra had been indicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone for war crimes committed in that country. Again situation intensified, and there were growing fear in the city. Later on the same day the then joint chief of staff made his infamous statement saying ‘If anyone tries anything there will be military vibration’. That statement was intended to increase fear in the population and to deter anyone planning to get into the street or perceived coup plotters. Taylor returned to Monrovia the same day, and the rebels entered the city two days after-putting us through three months of intensive city fighting attended by shelling of residential areas, mass killing and looting. As the rebels approached the center of government, Taylor realized that they were just five kilometers away from him, so he resigned as president and went into exile.

Back then, as a high school student, joining others in resistance and at the same time fearing reprisals, little did I know that I will be in the courtroom landing down a verdict on this man who dominated our lives for over 14 years. The man we feared. The grandstanding man, Dakpanah Dr. Charles Ghankay Taylor.

After his arrest in 2006, I was still in Monrovia, this time in university and leading a campus-based political movement. Two days after his transfer we organized a symposium discussing the arrest and the implications for the Mano River basin area of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, the region he nearly established himself as an emperor.

It has been six years of judicial processes involving court hearings, legal briefings, and testimonies from witnesses of both the prosecution and defense teams. So as I got the news of the verdict, I was now in Maastricht, just few miles away from the seat of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. I then contacted a friend of mine (a Bosnian) who works for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to arrange me a pass to attend the verdict. She was so excited to make this arrangement. She knew what it meant to be at such hearing, as she had also gone through a period of violence as a citizen of the of the former Yugoslavia.

So I made my way to The Hague early on the morning of April 26, reached the court hosted in the court building of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. As I took my seat and began to steer at the chambers of the court separated from the audience by a glass shielding, I paid more attention to looking at Mr. Taylor than the head judge reading the Verdict. Mr. Taylor on that day was not the Dapkanah that we used to hear on radio or see on television. He was not the Ghankay whom during his testimonies was courageous, strong and very eloquent. As a human, I felt sorry for him to admit. I saw him struggling with his eyes; he was unstable and very jittery. I am not sure if anyone can be normal on a day set to determine his fate, particularly when the whole world is watching. Elegantly dressed in navy blue suit, Mr. Taylor would at times try to write, but one could see that he was not really writing. As the judge read the verdict, he attempted taking notes, and quickly leaving it to listen again, and looking all around himself. That was Mr. Taylor on the day of the verdict.

So it went on slowly with the head judge eloquently reading out the verdict. He narrated from both prosecution and defense arguments and brought down opinions of his trial chamber. Since I have followed this case from 2003 there were three main arguments the prosecution had had against Mr. Taylor for which the 11 counts of war crimes, rape, murder and so forth were leveled against him. The prosecution had argued that he was personally and criminally responsible for the atrocities committed against the people of Sierra Leone; he was part of a joint criminal enterprise that unleashed terror on the people of Sierra Leone and looted their resources; and he was in charge of the command and control of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) that committed the atrocities in Sierra Leone. It was on the basis of these that the 11 counts were drawn.

Reading the verdict Judge Richard Lussick went one by one citing issues and arguments. On all the three arguments above he said the trial chamber found that the prosecution failed to prove that the accused is personally responsible and that he operated in a joint criminal enterprise, and also that he was in charge of the command structure of the RUF. However, on the main issue for which he was found guilty, ‘aiding and abetting’, the trial chamber found that Mr. Taylor provided arms and ammunitions, moral and financial supports to the RUF and the Armed Forces Revolutionary (AFRC) Council between 1997 and 2001. And that he provided military personnel to RUF/AFRC joint operations on Freetown which was called ‘operation no living thing’. These issues were clearly read out by the judge. And what we could see happening in both the chamber and among the audience was the growing euphoria of nervousness, as everyone tried taking some notes and listening keenly. The verdict was now coming to land. It has been two hours of reading and what the whole world was waiting to hear was ‘guilty or acquitted’.

13:08 GMT April 26: Judge Lussick asked Mr. Taylor to stand up. Mr. Taylor stood up and the judge began to read out that he is criminally responsible for aiding and abetting the crimes committed by the RUF in Sierra Leone and was therefore guilty of all of the 11 counts leveled by the prosecution. According to the judge his support to the RUF through logistics, encouragement, advice, etc. all influenced the atrocities committed by the RUF. It was over! The rest were all after-event commentaries in the building and the street around the court building heavily guarded by security men.

But what was the most problematic issue? The world did not see this as they saw the entire ceremony from 11 GMT till after 13GMT. It was the position boldly stated by the alternate judge: Justice El Hadji Malick Sow. I remember seeing him and hearing him say ‘I have something to say’ and immediately after that the entire curtain separating the audience from the Chamber came down and the microphones were all switched off, the other three judges left him sitting and walked out. This action I believe was unfair to the world, and it can form any genuine basis for questioning the credibility of the court. No matter what, as a judge in the process, his opinion should have come out and the world deserved to hear him. However, the legal defense team of Mr. Taylor brought out a statement which they said was the transcript of what Justice Sow said. In the statement, Justice Sow said: “I disagree with the findings and conclusions of the other judges…the guilt of the accused from the evidence provided in this trial is not proved beyond a reasonable doubt by the prosecution.” From the statement one can see that Justice Sow believes that the principles of justice were not followed in finding Mr. Taylor guilty, and that the prosecution could not prove their case against him. So if it were Justice Sow alone, Mr. Taylor should walk free. Justice Sow said he didn’t have the opportunity to make this position clear during the deliberations before the verdict, so the only place he had was the courtroom, but he was cut off.

So the after-event commentaries went on with press conferences and side discussions. Taylor’s lawyer and defense team came out and met the Taylor’s family. I and two other Liberian observers stood by in national solidarity and we chatted on several other issues. But the family showed strength and they were calm and organized even taking photos and responding to journalists.

The prosecution held a news conference and declared victory for the people of Sierra Leone. The UN Special Representative for sexual violence applauded the ruling, so did representatives of several human rights organizations at the occasion. A man with one hand amputated, who represented the Sierra Leone victims, was also present and responding to journalists. As I listened to him there was one thing that he said and I took serious note of: ‘’So much money has been spent just to try this one man, what about our lives as victims’’? He applauded the ruling though. But his position is a serious issue. Victims deserve to get better reparations to be able to cope with life challenges in their difficult situations.

Barrister Courtenay Griffiths, QC, the head of Taylor’s defense team, took the stand to address a news conference in the building. It seems many people like to listen to this eloquent lawyer. So we were all keen listening. He started with the dissenting opinion of Justice Sow and how humiliating it was to be left alone. As usual, Griffiths continued his anti-colonial argument that the court is an instrument of neo-colonialism and that the outcome of the Taylor case was a product of political machinations rather than legal. He believes that atrocities were committed in Sierra Leone, but his case is that his client was not involved to the extent argued by the prosecution, and therefore not criminally responsible. Griffiths cited cases of world leaders interfering in the affairs of other countries, and also ongoing atrocities committed elsewhere around the world. From the numerous commentaries and the statements of the defense team, one can presume that the verdict will be appealed after the sentencing is announced on May 30.

So a long process spanning so many years seemingly came to an end on April 26, 2012. I think in some way if at all we take it as it is then Mr. Taylor was given justice since he had long years and many opportunities to exonerate himself from the allegations unlike the victims of the RUF who were accused the same day and executed or amputated on the spot with no opportunities to prove their innocence for the crimes they committed. Most of those crimes were just either their ethnicities, political affiliation, material possession or something they probably had no control over.

Again, while I see the verdict of Mr. Taylor as a process of justice consummating itself, I joined the numerous African activists condemning the selective process of the international justice system. From all indications, this process with two eyes: - one eye in the global north and one in the global south - has proven to be extremely biased. The eye of international justice in the global north is closed and not seeing the atrocities committed against people in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine. But the eye in the global south shines even more than the sun over it. It would seem that only African victims deserve justice, but not victims in Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq; but of course it is not the case. The case is that some perpetrators are above the system and can dictate its course so they are immune.

This is evidenced by the fact that the International Criminal Court is quick to pay attention to African conflicts – even conflicts that last just few months – but ignores conflicts that have gone for decades. Examples include Ivory Coast, Libya, and the recent statement by the court to look into Mali. This system is unfair not just to African leaders who are being dragged to court, but also to victims in different places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

This is where I join other African activists to advocate an African justice system to try Africans accused of war crimes in Africa and also to host prisoners in Africa if convicted.

Back in Liberia, the reactions were different, some hailed Taylor’s verdict while others were extremely sad about the news. In Sierra Leone, the verdict came down on the eve of the anniversary of their independence celebration. There were massive celebrations after the verdict as we learned. What many people around the world who have not followed the case in details do not know is the fact that Taylor had only been tried for war crimes in Sierra Leone and not Liberia, so the questions continue to go around: What about the victims of the Liberian war; when will they get justice? This verdict of Mr. Taylor would probably renew the call long made for justice in Liberia.

In the Cause of Democracy and Social Justice the Pen Shall Never Run Dry

1 comment:

lkpargoi said...

If most African justice systems were strong and independent enough, then your argument for trying war criminals on the continent will be viable!