Byline: Geoffrey Robertson
Charles Taylor was on trial for all these crimes, and more. Soon, we'll have a verdict.
The verdict on Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia, will be announced on April 26 by the Special Court for Sierra Leone. It has sat for over three years in The Hague to hear accusations that in order to gain a share of Sierra Leone's diamonds, he conspired with Foday Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front to wage Africa's most brutal war against a democratically elected government. Taylor and Sankoh (who died in 2003) are alleged to have trained in Libya at the invitation of Col. Muammar Gaddafi (an "unindicted co-conspirator").
During the war, it is said that Taylor, posing as a peacemaker, presented some of his ill-gotten uncut diamonds to supermodel Naomi Campbell, after dinner chez Nelson Mandela. He is charged with murder, rape, terrorism, pillage, sexual enslavement, and recruiting children.
Much of the evidence has been stomach-turning. The RUF fighters lopped off the hands of anyone who had voted in the U.N.-sponsored elections and engaged in widespread mutilation and murder of civilians as part of Operation No Living Thing in Freetown. There is no doubt that they recruited children as soldiers and sex slaves, and killed prisoners of war to eat their hearts out in the juju belief that they would gain their enemies' strength.
But was Charles Taylor in any way responsible for these atrocities? He never set foot in Sierra Leone and the prosecution had to rely on evidence that he was in communication with rebel leaders. That contact was necessary, so Taylor testified, to perform his U.N.-accredited role as peacemaker. The prosecution claimed he was directing his RUF proxies, and in return for diamonds was arranging to supply them with weapons, military personnel, and safe haven on the Liberia-Sierra Leone border.
It will be for the court--a judge from Northern Ireland, a judge from Uganda, and a judge from Samoa (trained in Australia) to determine where the truth lies. Instead of defying the court like Milosevic or trying to disrupt it by defending himself, Taylor retained a British Queen's Counsel (a senior Old Bailey advocate) to represent him throughout the trial. This made it a true adversarial proceeding and enhanced his prospects of acquittal by independent judges on prosecution evidence that has been mainly circumstantial--no witnesses testified to receiving orders from him to fight the war. The judges must be satisfied of his guilt beyond reasonable doubt, so his conviction on all or any of the charges is not a foregone conclusion.
One disquieting feature of the case is the time the court has taken to deliver this judgment--thirteen months, no less, since the final speeches finished. The trial itself lasted over three years, during which time the judges should have been working on their assessments--the issues are complicated but it should not take over a year to give reasons for a verdict. While it is not necessary to follow the lead of the German judges who convicted one of the last Nazis--John Demjanjuk--only two days after the end of his two-year trial, it remains true that justice delayed is justice denied, especially in a court whose first president promised that "our justice, whilst it may not be exquisite, will never be rough."
At any event, it can be predicted that the judgment will be lengthy. It has been touted as the first international-court decision on the guilt of a head of state (Milosevic …