Judgment in the trial of Liberia’s former president Charles Taylor, who stands accused of committing war crimes in neighbouring Sierra Leone is tomorrow, April 26.
The case that has been heard in the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a hybrid domestic and international court in The Hague, has seen celebrity testimony from Naomi Campbell and Mia Farrow, chilling witness accounts of torture, maiming, cannibalism, and tales of Taylor’s conversion to Judaism while in prison.
Beyond these sensational elements of the trial, a number of experts in international law regard it as a landmark case. Taylor, the rebel leader turned democratically-elected president, stands charged with 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity including rape, murder, terrorism, and using child soldiers during Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war, a war that was characterised by a gruesome trademark of amputations and mutilation of victims. Elise Keppler, a senior counsel with the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch, says that even at this stage the verdict could go either way.
But as the news story reaches a climax, and journalists and analysts speculate its possible outcome and its implications for global justice and accountability within the region, Liberians are wondering when the warlords who played a key role in Liberia’s civil conflict will ever be tried and punished and when the nation will begin its journey towards reconciliation.
Taylor, once a charismatic and powerful leader, enjoys a significant amount of support in Liberia nearly a decade after he was compelled to step down, despite the fact that many also regard him as a war criminal. It is unclear how his supporters will respond to the verdict.
In Taylor’s former stronghold of Gbarnga, the former capital of the makeshift state he carved out and ruled over, known as Greater Liberia, many Liberians hope that Taylor will be found not guilty and will return to Liberia.
Mark Dowee, 35, who grew up in Gbarnga and was recruited as a child soldier in the 1990s by Taylor’s rebel faction the National Patriotic Liberation Front, describes Taylor as a noble provider and protector despite the fact that he “brought war” to Liberia. Dowee recounts seeing Taylor walking down the street dressed in army fatigues surrounded by big AK-47 wielding men.
“He was young with bushy hair and he came to tell people they had to do something for themselves and that Liberia had to be liberated,” Dowee says, describing a Taylor in his early forties. “He was a gentleman and distributed food.”
Dowee was a member of the notorious Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU), a special force charged with protecting Taylor after he was elected president. The ATU, headed by Taylor’s son Chuckie, was known for its sometimes fatal regiment for inductees and the acts of torture and brutality it committed against Liberian citizens. Chuckie, a US citizen raised in Florida until he was 17 years old, received a 97-year sentence in 2009 under the United States Anti-Torture Act for the atrocities he committed in Liberia.
“But he is a man who goes by his word, he is a man of principle,” Dowee says. “You know Jesus came and not everyone praised Jesus. He acted some way like Jesus, but he would punish you.”
Dowee, now at university studying agriculture, says Taylor provided him with an education and helped protect him after his village was destroyed and his sister was kidnapped and raped during the early days of the war.
On the Gbarnga-Melekie highway, a farm once owned by Taylor sits untended: cattle wander wild over a wide sprawling green space. The building was under construction during Taylor’s presidency when the new rebel faction – Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) – launched an offensive in 1999 and gained control of a large part of Liberia.
The farm employed close to two thousand Liberians and sold its produce throughout various counties. In a dusty marketplace made up of a jumble of wooden shelters covering tables dotted with a scarce supply of goods, the people say they want Taylor back because under his leadership the price of rice and goods was less expensive.
Mary Banda, 33, stands behind a table with small bundles of withered peppers and bitter balls. “We want him to come back, it’s harder now,” she says. “Food was cheaper, gas cost less.”
Back in the capital Monrovia, with its paved roads, supermarkets and giant choking electricity generators that are a world away from its neighbouring counties, opinion is more varied.
In atai societies throughout the city, where men from all walks of life meet to drink tea and discuss politics, many argue that Taylor should be tried in Liberia, along with other former rebel faction leaders.
Nathan Gull, a 33-year-old businessman and public administration student sits crouched on a wooden bench, dressed in pinstriped trousers and a checked shirt.
“We would like for Charles Taylor to be indicted for war crimes in Liberia rather than Sierra Leone,” says Gull. “There were more atrocities that occurred in Liberia under the leadership of Charles Taylor as compared to that in Sierra Leone.”
Like many of the men seated around him, Gull criticises the culture of impunity in Liberia, a country in which ex-faction leaders and those who were deeply involved in the war, both militarily and economically, hold senior government positions.
“The whole process is partial, Charles Taylor alone has been singled out by the international community,” says Gull. “But what has happened to the others like George Boley, Sekou Damate Konneh and Alhaji Kromah? All of these top rebel leaders are walking free. We see some of them in the Senate and the House of Representatives, so why only Taylor?”
Among the most controversial leaders is Prince Johnson, the former head of the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia, a warring faction in the 1990s, who ran for president last year.
Johnson was listed as the worst perpetrator of war crimes and human rights violations in the final report of Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). But he is best known among Liberians for his appearance in a film in which he sits reclined in a chair, dressed in army fatigues and sipping on a Budweiser as men under his command mutilate and torture the late president Samuel Doe, who was later killed off camera. Johnson came third in last year’s election and became the self-proclaimed “kingmaker”, backing incumbent Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who went on to re-gain the presidency.
“Better two indictees than one,” I heard Johnson say to a crowd of supporters when he toured his home county of Nimba last October to generate support for Johnson Sirleaf. In 2009, Johnson Sirleaf was included in a list of 50 people who, according to the TRC, should be "specifically barred from holding public offices; elected or appointed for a period of thirty years" for "being associated with former warring factions".
Aaron Weah, a Liberian civil society activist and scholar who has specialised in Liberia’s post-conflict transition, claims that the political prominence of Johnson Sirleaf and others involved in the war underlines the challenges the nation will face in its pursuit of justice and reconciliation.
“It just shows that we are still far away from having any breakthrough if Prince Johnson presides over the national security committee of our country that is trying to reform the very security architecture he destroyed. That is a joke,” Weah says emphatically.
But perceptions of former faction leaders differ from county to county, sometimes even village to village, depending on the dominant ethnic makeup of the area and the politics of patronage that existed there. There is no agreed upon or coherent narrative of the war nor consensus on who were the victims and the persecutors.
Liberia’s 14-year civil crisis left 250,000 people dead, the nation’s infrastructure in tatters, and survivors with traumatic memories of the atrocities they witnessed.
Liberia’s TRC released its final report in 2009 recommending 120 people to be tried for war crimes and 50 people to be barred from politics for 30 years. President Johnson Sirleaf 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.
Many analysts, like Weah, argue the indictment of powerful members of the political establishment such as Johnson Sirleaf 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,” 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 report did not build up a case as to why certain people should be prosecuted or banned from politics. In 2011, just over a year after the 2009 TRC report was released, the Supreme Court found the TRC’s recommendations to be unconstitutional because it violated the rights of individuals to due process.
“It is a shame that Liberia doesn’t have legitimate and transparent processes through which to suppress the recommendations through good law,” says Jonny Steinberg, author of Little Liberia: An African Odyssey in New York. “That the recommendations have been suppressed in such a problematic fashion only compounds ordinary people’s suspicions that the powerful have managed once again to escape accountability.”
Taylor’s verdict is to come on the back of last year’s tense presidential and legislative elections that saw claims of electoral fraud, a boycott of the second round by the opposition Congress for Democratic Change party (CDC), and a protest on the day before the vote in which one demonstrator was shot dead and several others were injured. The CDC’s support base was largely made up of the unemployed and ex-combatants, many of whom feel they have not benefited under Johnson Sirleaf’s administration.
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and peace activist Leymah Gbowee says the tensions that arose during the elections illustrated the urgent need for reconciliation amongst Liberians.
“For six years we have sidestepped it,” Gbowee said at the office of her peace foundation in Monrovia. “When the time came for the election of leaders, the ugly head of the past rose up. We haven’t as a people been able to look that evil that brought the war in the eye and say this is it, this group is responsible.”
But for Gbowee, prosecutions are not the way forward, at least not for now, in a nation still divided along the same ethnic lines that defined the war and where peace is fragile and maintained by a force of 8,000 United Nations peacekeepers.
“If you decide to indict Prince Johnson 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 says. “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. We still see people being prosecuted for crimes they committed in World War II today.”
Steinberg also argues that a war crimes court could further divide Liberians. "There is so little consensus on where blame lies,” he says. “It is hard to imagine a process would be considered fair [by Liberians] even if some powerful international agency or court were involved.”
Many ordinary Liberians also agree that a war crimes court may not be the way forward.
Oliver Wah a 27-year-old lab technician from River Gee County, in the South East of Liberia, survived a massacre committed in 1995 by the Liberian Peace Council (LPC), a rebel faction that fought during the first civil war. Wah hid behind a tree and watched as soldiers raped his mother and slit her throat “like a cow” and hacked off his father’s limbs. 37 villagers were killed that day.
“If we say that people should be prosecuted in Liberia, everybody would go, because almost the whole of Liberia went to war,” says Wah. “For me I suggest that Liberians forgive each other and rebuild our country.”
Abraham Dulleh, a 28-year-old sociology student, argues that Liberia must move beyond the past and focus on the nation’s current developmental challenges.
“As a nation we have been through a lot,” he says. “We think that bygones should be bygones because we need to develop this country if we are to move forward. We need to get back the things that we lost during the war. Even if you arrest all of the warlords and put them in the chair it wouldn’t make me have my school fees; it will not provide me with food or anything.”
A number of advocacy groups, however, argue that prosecutions are necessary if Liberia is to move forwards. In 2009 when TRC’s final report was released, for example, Human Rights Watch recommended that an international-domestic hybrid war crimes court be set up in Liberia.
“Liberia is a situation where there have been serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, but no prosecutions for the crimes,” says Elise Keppler, senior counsel with the International Justice Programme at Human Rights Watch. “What we are seeing is a justice vacuum that puts Liberia in stark contrast with its neighbour Sierra Leone. In Sierra Leone, we are seeing a robust justice effort however imperfect and limited.”
Liberian human rights lawyer Tiawan Gongloe who was tortured for speaking out against Taylor’s regime agrees that prosecutions are necessary but argues that rather than trying perpetrators in one domestic-international court, special chambers for war crimes should be created in domestic courts and supported by international legal experts. And he argues that perpetrators should be tried in the counties in which they committed crimes.
“Justice should be a deterrent for perpetrators and provide relief for victims,” he says. “A lot of these international courts don’t really provide relief for victims and are out of the public eye – the victims will never see them.”
But after decades of oppression under the ruling class followed by war, Liberia’s legal system is weak and unable to handle even simple criminal cases, a shortfall Gongloe acknowledges.
President Johnson Sirleaf has sidestepped the more contentious elements of the TRC report, and in her second term is increasingly using the discourse of economic empowerment to define reconciliation. In her inauguration speech earlier this year, she said: “True reconciliation means a process of national healing and learning the lessons from the past to perfect our democracy. Above all it means economic justice for our citizens and the spread of progress to all of our people. It means creating jobs, opportunities and giving our young people the skills to prosper and lead the life they choose.”
Indeed, Johnson Sirleaf appears to be steering clear of notions of punitive justice and last year appointed Gbowee to head the Liberian Reconciliation Initiative. The body will be politically and financially independent although its actual processes and projects remain unclear.
Part of Johnson Sirleaf's plans, however, are known to include the ‘palaver hut programme’, the least controversial of the TRC’s recommendations and the only one to be implemented at this stage. Palaver huts are spaces in traditional communities where people resolve disputes through discussion and the programme is aimed “to afford anyone who has committed, whether knowingly or unknowingly against an individual or the state, to admit the wrongful act and seek pardon from the people of Liberia”.
The programme is expected to commence in the next month, but it is unclear as to how the project will be funded, how dialogue will be facilitated and what issues people will be able to discuss inside the huts. And some members of Liberian civil society argue the palaver hut programme will not adequately address the mass atrocities that were committed during the war.
“There needs to be a discussion about the palaver hut programme. It is not a universal dispute resolution mechanism all across Liberia,” Weah says. “Historically the palaver hut has not been used to address mass atrocities.”
Jerome Verdier, the former chairman of the TRC, who now lives in the US and claims to have left Liberia due to death threats in the lead-up to the elections, says that prosecutions are fundamental to reconciliation in Liberia and sees the limited palaver hut programme as politically motivated. “We cannot have reconciliation without justice, and reconciliation shouldn’t be politicised,” Verdier says.
The head of the Liberia Democratic Institute Dan Sayree also sees the Liberian Reconciliation Initiative and the palaver hut programme as politically motivated and a distraction from the broader issues of justice and accountability.
“I see it as a charade and a deceitful approach and non-committal action towards peace and reconciliation in Liberia,” says Sayree. “If you want to reconcile people, those who you want to reconcile must be convinced that they have justice. Justice is not just about punishing people. It is also about creating an environment where those who perpetrated violence or other acts against people can admit to the problems that they created.”
Keppler does not see a direct relationship between justice and reconciliation, but says justice plays an important role in building peace and challenges arguments that pursuing prosecutions in post-conflict countries can have a destabilising effect.
“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 to strengthening the rule of law.”
Peterson Sonyah, 36, a survivor of the St Peter’s Lutheran Church massacre that claimed over 600 lives in 1990, recounts lying still under a church pew as soldiers shot people dead or hacked them to pieces. His father was hit in the leg and later bled to death. Sonyah, who now heads the Liberian Massacre Survivors Association, is gathering information from survivors of massacres committed during the war in anticipation of prosecutions and has tallied up 268 massacres, 68 more than documented by the TRC.
Sonyah says that prosecutions are necessary for Liberia’s future peace and security.
“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.”
While Taylor’s trial will have little effect on justice for war crimes in Liberia, Keppler argues that it will have broader implications for the region.
“When it comes to West Africa, this is the first time a ‘big man’ has been forced to face trial for alleged crimes and that makes it an important day not just for Sierra Leone but for all of West Africa, especially given Taylor’s stature throughout the region.”
Keppler and others say they are hoping the case will encourage Liberia to turn its attention to justice for crimes committed at home.
While the current political establishment may continue to work to undermine the possibility of prosecutions, some argue that the push and turn could come from within Liberian civil society.
According to Tiawan Gongloe, “Liberia is becoming a free society and it could happen sooner than people think”.
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