Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Liberia's Taylor: An alleged despot skips his day in court

One way to avoid being brought to justice - or, more precisely, to avoid facing the music of court proceedings the whole world will be watching - is simply not to show up for your trial at all.

That's what Liberia's former warlord-turned-president, Charles Ghankay Taylor did yesterday in The Hague, Holland, where he skipped the opening day of his trial at the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone. Taylor, who led rebel forces that controlled much of Liberia in the early 1990s, became the west-African country's elected president in 1997. Two years later, "he faced accusations from the United Nations that he was a gun runner and a diamond smuggler...." (BBC)

Liberia's former president, Charles Ghankay Taylor (left), in earlier days

However, it is for his alleged role in neighboring Sierra Leone's civil war that he has been summoned before the special international court. The global, human-rights advocacy organization Human Rights Watch notes that Taylor, who served as Liberia's president until 2003, "is being tried on 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international law committed during Sierra Leone's conflict." Taylor's alleged crimes include "murdering and mutilating civilians, using women and girls as sex slaves, and abducting both adults and children and making them perform forced labor or become fighters." (HRW report in the Standard Times Press, Sierra Leone)

The charges against the notorious Liberian warlord-politician stem from his supposed role as a supporter of the Revolutionary United Front, a rebel group in Sierra Leone, and his alleged association with another fighting group, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council. He also allegedly "was responsible for Liberian forces fighting in support of the Sierra Leonean rebels," and Liberian forces under Taylor's command have been "implicated in human-rights abuses in other West African states, including Liberia, Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire, although these are not at issue" in the current trial. (HRW report in the Standard Times Press, Sierra Leone; see also Angola Press)

Although the special, U.N.-backed court, whose judges and staffers come from Sierra Leone and other countries, is based in Freetown, the capital of the small country on the west coast of Africa, Taylor's trial is taking place in The Hague on account of security concerns. Because the governments of Liberia and Sierra Leone feared Taylor's trial could lead to violence in Freetown, its location was changed last year. Nevertheless, China's Xinhua news service reports, "Many witnesses will testify anonymously for fear of revenge from Taylor's supporters," and some "will be put in witness-protection schemes after giving evidence." Meanwhile, the ex-president's supporters "insist that Taylor has been made a scapegoat for the wrongdoings of others."

Tens of thousands were killed or mutilated in Sierra Leone's brutal civil war, in which Taylor allegedly played a big role

The Liberian newspaper the Analyst notes that Taylor's trial will "demonstrate to despots" everywhere "that the world is a global village, and that that village cannot condone injustice and a culture of impunity....The trial is expected to last until December 2008, with a judgment likely by mid-2009. Prosecutors have indicated they plan to call up to 139 core witnesses."

Amnesty International, the human-rights advocacy group, has stated: "It is vitally important that this landmark trial is communicated to victims of the crimes being prosecuted...." The Analyst notes that A.I. has described Taylor's trial "as the first time a former head of state or government has been prosecuted in an international criminal court for crimes committed in Africa against Africans...."

Yesterday, in his absence, Taylor's lawyer read a letter from his client. Addressed to the court, it stated: "I cannot participate in a charade that does no justice to the people of Liberia and Sierra Leone....I choose not to be a fig leaf of legitimacy for this court." (Reuters; also Agence France Presse in Libération)

Link to SFGate: World Views : Sierra Leone