In Monrovia, Charles Taylor's wife awaits his verdict
Charles Taylor, the former Liberian leader accused of 11 counts of war crimes, will learn his fate tomorrow in what is seen as a milestone moment for international justice.
| Monrovia, Liberia
For the last five years, Victoria Taylor has been waiting for her husband Charles to come home.
At the couple's dusty mansion on the edge of Monrovia, everything is as he left it. Her husband's collection of Picasso prints lines the walls of the drawing room. A wide veranda looks out over an empty tennis court and the unkempt garden beyond.
"A house without a husband is not a home," Victoria says, leaning back in a faded upholstered chair.
But White Flower, the Taylor family residence, is no ordinary home. And Charles Taylor, the man Victoria married in 2002, is no ordinary husband.
Taylor, the former Liberian leader accused of 11 counts of war crimes and human rights abuses during Sierra Leone's war, will learn his fate Thursday in what is being deemed a milestone moment for international justice irrespective of the verdict. Taylor is the first African former head of state to go on trial in a UN-backed, international court.
West Africa analyst Abdou Aine, who heads a Senegal-based think tank, said "international justice is on trial" as well as Taylor. "Thursday's verdict will set the tone for future trials of African leaders," he says, "including the trial of former Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo, scheduled to open in the ICC in June."
The verdict will be read out in an air-conditioned courtroom 3,000 miles from the humid hills of Sierra Leone, and even further from Monrovia – a city the ex-rebel chief is unlikely, if convicted, to ever return to.
Taylor is charged with such crimes as orchestrating murder, instigating sexual violence, and recruiting child soldiers for Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The rebel group is notorious for hacking off the limbs of civilians, cutting at the elbow (known as "short sleeves") or at the wrist ("long sleeves"). Taylor, who has never been to Sierra Leone, is accused of masterminding the atrocities from neighboring Liberia.
Sipping from a dainty china teacup on the patio of the family home, Victoria cuts a more delicate figure. She married Taylor a year before he stepped down as President of Liberia and went into exile in Nigeria in 2003. From there, he was indicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a UN-backed court charged with investigating crimes committed during Sierra Leone's civil war, which ended in 2002. Taylor's is the final case in the mandate of the court, which sentenced RUF leader Issa Sesay to 52 years behind bars.
Victoria calls her husband's indictment "heartbreaking" and maintains that he has been used as an example while his allies still hold government positions in Liberia. "There are big hands behind my husband's trial," she says, her hair pulled back into a loose ponytail, her feet clad in shiny purple pumps. "They've carried the propaganda that Charles Taylor is a demon."
During the five-year trial, which began in 2007, 115 witnesses have been called to the stand, the majority testifying in keeping with the prosecution's line that Taylor orchestrated some of the worst human rights abuses in recent history. Among them was the supermodel Naomi Campbell, who was credited with directing media attention towards the tribunal when she testified that she received blood diamonds from Taylor's aides.
A 'family man'?
Victoria's account of her husband describes a "family man" whose implication in the Sierra Leonean war is "unbelievable." She admits that he played a part in Liberia's conflict - for which he has never been tried - but says his rebellion in that country was widely supported.
Liberian civil rights activist Jonathan Broh says Taylor still has a wide body of support in Liberia. "Everybody came out of Liberia's conflict with dirty hands," he said. "The majority of Liberians do not support Taylor, but there are plenty of people who do."
Taylor was a popular president, coming to power in 1997 off the back of a campaign that had as its slogan, "He killed my Ma, he killed my Pa, but I will vote for him." His popularity was fueled by subsidized rice prices and support for a bloody rebellion he led to oust President Samuel Doe from power. Liberia's current leader Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf admitted supporting the rebellion.
Awards, self-portraits on walls
Taylor wasn't just popular among Liberians. A brass plaque in the drawing room of White Flower is an ECOWAS peace award. A signed portrait of former UN chief Kofi Annan takes pride of place.
The couple has three daughters together, including two-year-old Charlize, who was conceived in The Hague during a conjugal visit. Charles' older children from his first marriage to the Liberian senator Jewel Taylor also spend time at the family home, which is adorned with paintings of Charles. In one, he is depicted crouching on a cloud while God smiles down on him from the heavens.
Despite allegations that Taylor made millions from West Africa's illegal timber and diamonds trade, Victoria insists there is little money for upkeep of the mansion. In the temple, rows of shabby velvet seats face an altar where fruit flies flit around a collection of silver menorahs – a mark of Taylor's conversion to Judaism while in The Hague.
"There is nobody like Charles Taylor in politics now," Victoria says, enunciating every syllable of her husband's name as if she were a schoolgirl and he her movie star crush. "That's why many people still support him. Every day you move around and people ask you, 'When will Charles Taylor come back home?' "
Victoria plans to travel to the Hague to hear her husband's verdict read out Thursday. If Taylor is found guilty, he will likely spend his sentence in a British jail. If he is acquitted on lack of evidence, the prosecution is expected to launch an appeal. Taylor, it seems, may not be coming home anytime soon.