x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The Hague judgement nears for Charles Taylor's alleged role in Sierra Leone conflict

A special court there will deliver its verdict tomorrow on the former Liberian president, who is charged with a litany of war crimes.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone has heard statements from victims of amputation who displayed remains of mutilated limbs, and graphic accounts of massacres, torture and cannibalism.
The Special Court for Sierra Leone has heard statements from victims of amputation who displayed remains of mutilated limbs, and graphic accounts of massacres, torture and cannibalism.

THE HAGUE/FREETOWN // Begging outside a supermarket in Sierra Leone's capital Freetown, Tamba Ngaujah has little doubt who was behind the Revolutionary United Front rebels who, 20 years ago, gave him "short sleeves".

"They put my arms on the sticks, took machetes, and cut them ... They only thing I can tell you about Charles Taylor: I heard from the RUF [rebels] who amputated my hands that they were supported by Charles Taylor," Mr Ngaujah, 46, said.

Tomorrow a special court in The Hague will give its verdict on just what level of responsibility Mr Taylor, the former Liberian president, had in these war atrocities. He denies any responsibility.

In an 11-year conflict which by 2002 left more than 50,000 dead and become a byword for gratuitous violence, "short sleeves" was the macabre tag used to distinguish amputations like Mr Ngaujah's at the elbow from less drastic "long sleeve" cuts at the wrist.

Prosecutors allege Mr Taylor, from his base in Liberia, directed and armed the Sierra Leonean rebels and so bears responsibility on 11 counts including murder, mutilation, rape, enslavement and recruitment of child soldiers.

Whether he is found guilty or not, the verdict will be the first in a court of this kind against a former head of state on serious violations of international law.

"The Sierra Leone conflict was brutal, and Charles Taylor was seen as a big man in the region," said Elise Keppler, a senior counsel at Human Rights Watch.

"Regardless of the verdict, this will send a clear signal that people implicated in the worst crimes will face justice no matter how important or powerful they are," she said.

Since Mr Taylor's indictment in 2003, the Special Court for Sierra Leone - a so-called "hybrid" court staffed by both international and Sierra Leonean personnel - has produced testimony ranging from the horrific to the titillating.

As prosecutors sought to link Mr Taylor to the locally mined "blood diamonds" which helped fuel the war, the court heard the bafflement of the supermodel Naomi Campbell at the uncut diamonds - or "dirty little pebbles" in her words - delivered during the night to her hotel room after a 1997 charity dinner with Mr Taylor.

It also featured victims of amputation who displayed remains of mutilated limbs, and graphic accounts of massacres, torture and cannibalism as the prosecution called 91 witnesses whose accounts are included in almost 50,000 pages of transcripts.

Typical is the description by one such witness of the mutilation and execution of his brother by rebels.

"They cut off all his 10 fingers," Patrick Sheriff said. "They put them in (a) cup, then they shot him."

Another witness described fighters betting on the sex of a pregnant woman's child. According to the prosecution: "The rebels shot the woman dead, opened her belly, took out the baby ... The baby cried and then died."

For prosecutors, the challenge is to show a link between Mr Taylor and such crimes. Much depends on the evidence of seven radio operators who allegedly kept him in touch with rebel groups. Mr Taylor does not deny atrocities, but does deny any role.

Sareta Ashraph, a former Special Court of Sierra Leone lawyer, says even if a link between Mr Taylor and RUF rebels is demonstrated, it would be harder to show he had a clear planning or command role in the late-1990s period covered by the court.

"It difficult to see the motivation for putting himself in charge of the RUF," said Mr Ashraph.

"He was already president of Liberia, was making money off them and would have realised the best the RUF were going to do is force the government into a stalemate."

The rebels and government signed a 1999 peace deal but fighting continued for nearly three years until the RUF was defeated with military help from Britain and UN forces.

While Mr Taylor, 64, was deemed enough of a menace to West Africa's stability that his trial was moved to The Hague after his March 2006 arrest during exile in Nigeria, his present-day influence is harder to define.

The region is still plagued by mercenaries like those who created havoc two decades ago. But militant Islamists such as Nigeria's Boko Haram or Al Qaeda agents in the Sahel zone are now the bigger threat, alongside the growing narcotics trade.

Nonetheless, acquittal for Mr Taylor would be an uncomfortable prospect for the Liberian president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who became his arch-enemy after withdrawing support for him early in the Liberian civil war of the 1990s that brought him to power.

Yet while he is abhorred by many of Liberians, Mr Taylor remains a local hero and symbol of national pride for some.

"The best president I have seen in my time is Charles Ghankay Taylor. He is better than Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf," Karhn Dayplay, 40, a farmer, said.

"Taylor must come back here to rule this nation. We are waiting for him," said Mr Dayplay, a resident of Karnplay, one of the Nimba County towns from which Mr Taylor launched his 1989 rebellion to unseat the then president Samuel Doe.

A man used to giving orders, Mr Taylor has wanted to be closely involved in shaping his defence, taking the witness box for seven months with confident, forthright performances.

As he awaits the verdict, he has immersed himself in study of the Jewish faith to which he converted before arriving in The Hague. He has regular visits from a rabbi and does not receive his lawyers on the Sabbath.

His library - now put in storage - had occupied an entire room at the seaside detention facilities used by the tribunal and the International Criminal Court, where he is said to maintain cordial relations with old enemy Laurent Gbagbo, the former Ivory Coast leader transferred there last year to face charges of crimes against humanity.

His defence team reports that he is reading Strategic Vision, the latest book by a former US national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and that Mr Taylor followed last year's upheavals in North Africa with avid interest.

He has benefited from the company of other African detainees including Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo to go through legal briefs and cook home favourites together - one domestic option he may lack in the British maximum security prison due to house him if found guilty.