Will Charles Taylor ever face justice for crimes in Liberia?

A week after a Special Tribunal for war crimes in Liberia found Liberian President Charles Taylor guilty for aiding war crimes in Sierra Leone, Liberians ask if he will face justice at home.

Peter Dejong/AP
Former Liberian President Charles Taylor takes notes as he waits for the start of a hearing to deliver verdict in the court room of the Special Court for Sierra Leone in Leidschendam, near The Hague, Netherlands, Thursday, April 26.

The guilty verdict handed down last week in the trial against Charles Taylor for committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone was lauded by the international community and human rights groups as a victory for international justice.

But many, both inside and outside of Liberia, are questioning when those responsible for atrocities committed during the nation’s brutal civil war, among them Taylor, will have their day in court. More than 250,000 were killed in the course of the war, which destroyed the nation's infrastructure.

“The lack of justice for the victims of the Liberian conflict is shocking,” said Brima Abdulai Sheriff, director of Amnesty International Sierra Leone. “The government of Liberia must end the reign of impunity by enacting the necessary legislation and acting on its duty to investigate and prosecute alleged perpetrators.”

The Special Court for Sierra Leone in the Hague found Mr. Taylor guilty of aiding and abetting crimes including murder, terrorism, rape, sexual slavery, and mutilations committed by rebel forces during Sierra Leone's civil war. The 11-year conflict, which ended in 2002, killed more than 50,000, and left many traumatized and maimed. 

Taylor’s defense counsel has 14 days to appeal the case. A sentence is scheduled to be delivered at the end of the month. Experts in international law expect that his sentence will be less severe because the prosecution was unable to prove allegations that Taylor had command and control over the rebel Revolutionary United Front.

Counselor Tiawan Gongloe, a human rights lawyer who was severely tortured under Taylor's orders when he criticized the government in 2002, said the verdict was a victory for human rights and sent out a warning message to key players in Liberia’s civil war that like Taylor, their time too would come.

“His conviction is the beginning of the end of impunity in Liberia because now the ‘big man syndrome' in Liberia is going to end and no one will feel that he or she is above the law,” Mr. Gongloe says. “People will know that whatever happens in the sub-region that there is a day for accountability and this will serve as a deterrent for all other leaders after Taylor.”

But unlike Sierra Leone, which, with the support of the United Nations, established a hybrid domestic and international court in 2002 to prosecute key players in its devastating civil war, the government in Liberia has yet to take action and prosecute key players in the war.

“Liberia should follow Sierra Leone's example so that Liberian victims can also see justice done,” says Elise Keppler, a senior counsel with the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch.

Like many African nations emerging from war, Liberia had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The final report was released in 2009 and recommended  that 120 people be tried for war crimes and 50 people be barred from politics for 30 years. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf -- who won this year's Nobel Peace Prize for her role in reconciliation in post-war Liberia -- was listed in the latter category for sending money to Taylor early on in the war in order to, in her own words, “challenge the brutality” of President Doe’s regime.

Liberian civil society activist Aaron Weah says that while there were many problems with the TRC, the indictment of powerful members of the political establishment, such as Ms. Sirleaf and the controversial ex-warlord Sen. Prince Johnson, has been the main reason the report appears to have been shelved and its more punitive recommendations ignored.

“The prospects seem very remote, but it is only because of the prevailing political will,” Mr. Weah says. “If there is a change of regime, the conversation might change and the space could be opened up for prosecution and we could be involved in a new round of investigations.”

But others argue that the recommendations of the TRC were unlikely to be implemented because they were deeply flawed and because the report did not build up a case as to why certain people should be prosecuted or banned from politics. In 2011 the Supreme Court found the TRC’s recommendations to be unconstitutional because the commission violated the rights of individuals to due process.

While international rights groups are calling for the Liberian government to act, not everyone agrees that prosecutions are the way forward in Liberia, a nation the remains divided along the ethnic lines that defined the war and the rebel factions that took part in it.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee, who led a women’s prayer movement to end the war in 2003 and who is now the head of the Liberian Reconciliation Initiative, argues that prosecutions could fuel ethnic tensions. Liberia’s peace still remains fragile and is maintained by the United Nations Mission in Liberia and its force of 8,000 UN peacekeepers.

“If you decide to indict Prince and use the retributive kind of justice for prosecution, especially in Liberia, you need to think about how you will quell some of the riots and demonstrations that will come as a result of this,” Gbowee said in an interview before the verdict. “The question is, should we allow him to go free because of fear of that? The answer is no – I do not support impunity. But the other question is, when? Not now.”

But not everyone agrees with Gbowee. Peterson Sonyah, 36, is a survivor of the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church massacre that claimed over 600 lives, the majority of them from Gio and Mano ethnic groups, and committed by members of the Armed Forces of Liberia in 1990, under the leadership of the then-president Samuel K. Doe. Sonyah now heads the Liberian Massacre Survivors Association (LIMASA).

Sonyah recounts laying still under a church pew as Doe's men shot people dead or chop them to pieces with cutlasses. His father was hit in the leg and later bled to death. He wants the government to act now.

"There should be prosecutions because maybe some people will think that they can go back again into the bushes and wage war on the Liberian people,” he says. “If people face justice they will not go back to what they did again.”

International human rights advocates like Keppler argue that prosecutions will play an important role in Liberia turning a page on its dark history, and establishing faith in the rule of law.

“From Human Rights Watch’s perspective, trials, for the gravest crimes and human rights violations committed are essential to making a serious break from the past, giving redress to the victims and the rule of law,” she says.

“War crimes and crimes against humanity cannot be forgotten and cannot be forgiven, certainly not by those who committed them, or by successor
governments,” says Geoffrey Robertson QC, who was president of the UN’s war crimes court in Sierra Leone and is the author of "Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice." Robertson says government support would be necessary if a country such as Liberia were to initiate prosecutions for war crimes.

“Without commenting on the present Liberian government, I would say in general it would require a government to ask the United Nations for assistance in establishing an independent tribunal,” says Mr. Robertson. “It would be a good idea to make that a hybrid tribunal in which the majority of judges are appointed by the UN and a minority of deputy prosecutors coming from Liberia that would engage the Liberian lawyers and investigators by making sure that the majority of the court was unbiased and unaffected by the obvious prejudice that would arise from having had their friends or relatives killed.”

Given the state of Liberia’s legal system, which often fails to serve justice even in cases involving minor crimes, most agree international legal and technical support would be required. Counselor Gongloe agrees that international support would be needed but argues that alleged perpetrators should be tried in county courts in the places where they are accused of committing the worst crimes so that victims can see justice done.

But Gongloe argues that civil society and the members of the political establishment will need to push for prosecutions in Liberia. “Sierra Leoneans got justice because they wanted justice,” Gongloe said. “They put justice at the front line in the search for peace. Liberians did not. The majority of the
outspoken people were not advocating for justice.”

Gongloe says this is in part a result of the outcome of the war that saw Taylor become a democratically elected president who was able to influence public opinion through patronage. But Gongloe is optimistic that with Taylor behind bars and his influence declining, the push for justice in Liberia will begin.

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