DESPITE ITS CUMBERSOME WAYS AND INSTITUTIONAL origins, which lie more in expediency than precedent, the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) is nevertheless an impressive forum by any standards. Housed in a building still known as the "Special Tribunal for Lebanon" in The Hague, the SCSL's very presence on European soil can be traced to the concerns of its original African hosts rather than to a natural home in the Dutch capital, which is today also the seat of its main successor, the International Criminal Court (ICC).
In 2006, as Charles Taylor's trial began in Freetown, the President of Sierra Leone, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, asked for the Court to be taken away from his country to protect a fragile peace which had just been achieved there. After bargaining among the Court's main Western backers, it was decided that Taylor's trial should be staged in the Netherlands.
Prior to that, the Court itself was only set up after a successful request by President Kabbah to the UN, and the willingness of the US, the UK and others to back it financially. Then as now, not all from the region were convinced of the merits of setting up a high-profile legal body to try a select few alleged protagonists in Sierra Leone's decade-long conflict.
However, on 26 April 2012., early controversy and muddied origins were swept away in a devastating display of international justice, when for the first time in history an elected African head of state was legally struck down for his part in a multiplicity of war crimes, the most heinous of which were committed while he was president of the sovereign Republic of Liberia.
Shortly after 'pm, before a public gallery of some 80 people including family and supporters as well as diplomats and journalists, Charles Ghankay Taylor, the most popular and among the most brutal of elected Liberian presidents, finally succumbed to international justice, found guilty on II counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and against international law.
A panel of three judges, from Samoa, Uganda and Ireland unanimously found Taylor guilty of an aiding-and-abetting role in all of the crimes of which he had been charged. However, they found him not guilty of engaging in a joint criminal enterprise, which the prosecution had alleged. But his lead part in the planning of the nefarious 6 January 1999 Freetown invasion and related acts was proven beyond reasonable doubt. After the proceedings, Taylor's lead counsel Courtenay Griffiths derided the prosecution's failure to prove Taylor's instigating role in most of the crimes of which his client was accused. He also characterised the Special Court itself, not for the first time, as a forum whose decisions were "dictated by certain political imperatives".
The conviction, Griffiths added, had been obtained through the admission of "tainted and corrupted evidence, including witness payments".
Admittedly, the fact that the Court had been set up a decade ago to try "those deemed most responsible" for the crimes committed in Sierra Leone's civil war still strikes an ironic chord, when one considers that for the most part, Taylor was in the end only convicted as an accessory to the crimes, albeit a very powerful and ruthless one. Also spoiling the day for the prosecution was the late statement of dissent by the fourth judge on the panel, the Senegalese Justice Malick Sow. A full participant together with the other judges throughout, Sow was however the designated "alternate" at the time of the decision, and therefore a non-voting member of the panel. For Sow, however, all that had gone on in the Court was far from right and proper.
As his honourable colleagues rose to depart the courtroom, Sow made his statement, just as the shutters came down on the public gallery and the microphones went dead. According to Courrenay Griffiths, then still inside the chamber, Sow said: "I disagree with the [Court's] finding that the standard of proof--beyond all reasonable doubt--has been adhered to," then widened the scope of his dissent by adding that "the whole system is in grave danger of losing credibility". …