Charles Taylor Judgment: From the Public Gallery

April 26, 2012, marked the conclusion of a nearly six-year long saga. A three-judge panel at the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) sitting in The Hague, the Netherlands unanimously found the former Liberian president Charles Taylor guilty of aiding and abetting 11 crimes, including murder, rape, sexual slavery, and forced labor. He was further convicted of planning, with Sierra Leonean rebels, attacks in three different areas of the country, including the capital Freetown and diamond-rich district of Kono. Taylor, wearing a dark, tailored suit, white shirt, and maroon necktie, sat solemnly—often gazing down—as he listened for nearly two and a half hours as Judge Richard Lussick read the summary of the judgment.

The 80-seat public gallery, which is perched high above the courtroom, was filled with NGO representatives, civil society groups, including victims of the conflict from Sierra Leone and Liberia, former SCSL staff, diplomats, journalists, and members of Taylor’s own family. They sat quietly listening closely to the judgment awaiting the final verdict. After two hours, there was a short break while the tape recording the hearing had to be replaced. The gallery erupted into a quiet murmur discussing what had been pronounced up to this point. After 420 days of trial, 115 witness, over 50,000 pages of testimony, and 1,520 exhibits presented, the world was finally about to know the verdict. Taylor was asked to stand. He listened with his hands clasped in front of him as Judge Lussick read the guilty verdict.

In a trial that featured many dramatic moments, including testimony about human cannibalism, British supermodel Naomi Campbell giving evidence of “blood diamonds,” and lawyers storming out of the courtroom, the judgment did not come without its moment. After the verdict was read, Alternate Judge Malick Sow began to read a statement disagreeing with the outcome of the case. As Judge Sow read aloud, the three judge panel rose and exited the courtroom. The microphones and cameras were shut off and the screen lowered in the public gallery. The public did not hear the completion of Judge Sow’s statement. As the screen closed on the courtroom, the observers filed out of the public gallery—many with a look of satisfaction—no one seemingly surprised.

In the media room, reporters from Europe and Africa clamored around former prosecutors David Crane, who signed the 2003 indictment against Taylor, and Stephen Rapp. About half a dozen television cameras were set up at the front of the room to record the press conferences of the prosecution and defense. Current Prosecutor Brenda Hollis hailed the historic conviction, Taylor was the first head of state to be convicted in by an international criminal tribunal since the Nuremburg trials in 1946, and paid deference to the victims of the decade-long civil war: “Today is for the people of Sierra Leone who suffered horribly at the hands of Charles Taylor…This judgment brings some measure of justice to the many thousands of victims who paid a terrible price for Mr. Taylor’s crimes.”

The civil war in Sierra Leone between the government and rebel groups claimed up to 50,000 lives with many thousands more devastated by being forced to serve as child soldiers and sex slaves and by having limbs amputated—a trademark of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel group. The judges ruled that Taylor knowingly assisted the commission of these crimes by providing a continuous flow of arms and ammunition to the RUF in exchange for diamonds.

During the defense press conference, Taylor’s lead counsel Courtenay Griffiths said that the verdict was inevitable and that it sets an “unwelcome precedent.” He also expressed concern that Judge Sow was not able to put his statement of disagreement on the record. Griffiths stayed on message, as he has throughout the trial, suggesting it was political in nature and that double standards in international criminal justice mean that only African leaders are subjected to judicial scrutiny.  He said the decision could constrain leaders of smaller countries who may need to protect their borders. Others did not feel this way.

Patrick Pokawa, who traveled from Sierra Leone representing civil society, said that he “saw the process as a very fair trial…I think our people will be happy when they hear this kind of news.” He said only a couple thousand people may have heard about the verdict, so he will be traveling to the villages and provinces throughout the country to explain what he saw and heard at the court.  He predicted, “The fact that justice has been done; they will be happy.”

Readers of the website that has monitored the Taylor trial since 2008 and who ardently followed the proceedings expressed similar reactions in response to the verdict. One comment [vem] expressed, “We waited patiently for this day hoping that the dead will get justice through the determination of the civilized world and that the victims, even though they cannot get back what has been taken away from them, can finally see the man who crucially contributed to their carnage behind bars.” Another [swizz] noted that “the time for impunity is over.”

Voices from Taylor supporters were also heard on the Taylor trial website. One longtime reader [Aki] wrote a personal note to Taylor, “The people in Liberia know that you [Taylor] are innocent no matter what the judges say. History will treat you much kinder then the international conspiracy is doing today.” Another [Harris K Johnson] expressed outrage, “If this is what you call justice, then there shouldn’t be a court. All one needs is to wage war on little and powerless nation, kill their leaders and steal all of the counties’ oil, diamond, and timbers like America and their big brother have always done.”

Regardless of opinions, the Taylor judgment is monumental and puts heads of state on notice that their illegal actions as leaders are no longer immune from justice.

In the coming weeks, the prosecution and defense will be submitting filings on sentencing. The prosecution and the defense will make oral submissions at a sentencing hearing on May 16 and the judges will read out Taylor’s sentence on May 30, 2012. At this time, Taylor will also have the opportunity to address the court, possibly his final opportunity to make a public statement before his jail term begins. Both the prosecution and defense have the right to appeal the judgment. Any prison term he receives will be served in the United Kingdom.

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