Sierra Leoneans Await Final Taylor Judgment

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Mabinty Kargbo was just 15 years old when, during Sierra Leone’s horrific 11-year war, rebels cut off her hands and killed her parents in front of her.

Now, as the trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor draws to a close in The Hague, Mabinty waits anxiously to hear whether he will be held responsible for the rebels’ crimes.

Taylor has been charged with backing the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the group that fought more than a decade long campaign to seize control of Sierra Leone. The trial, which has lasted three years, is finally drawing to a close, with prosecutors and defense lawyers set to make their closing arguments from February 8 to 11. Sierra Leoneans can hope that judges will deliver a final verdict before the end of 2011.

During the closing arguments, prosecutors hope to persuade the judges that Taylor “created, armed, supported, and controlled” the RUF, supplying them with materials and manpower. Were it not for Taylor’s support, they argue, “the crimes suffered by the people of Sierra Leone would not have occurred.”

Defense lawyers will stress Taylor’s innocence. They will argue that RUF rebels might have had dealings with the Liberian security apparatus, but any such relationships existed without Taylor’s knowledge or support. And when Taylor eventually did have dealings with the RUF, after he became president of Liberia in 1997, the contact happened with the consent of other West African leaders and was geared only toward bringing a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Sierra Leone.

These are the nuanced questions before the court in The Hague. When I was in Sierra Leone over New Year’s, wanting to find out what people thought about the high profile trial, I found a more basic sense of anticipation.

As I walked the streets of Freetown and spoke with all kinds of people, I found Sierra Leoneans are waiting for only one thing—a final determination of whether Taylor is guilty or innocent. And if the judges find Taylor guilty, many, like Mabinty, will be anxious to know his sentence.

“We all want to hear the judgment that the judges will issue. And we hope they execute Taylor, let him die just the way he caused the death of our people in this country,” Mabinty, now 26, told me. “But even when Taylor dies, we will not forget what the rebels did to us. When I look at my hands, and when I wake up in the morning and don’t see my parents, I will always remember the war in this country.”

I had to explain to Mabinty that the Special Court for Sierra Leone will not hand out a death sentence to any convicted person. She looked disappointed.

Public opinion in Sierra Leone about Taylor is hardly neutral. Most people you meet hold him responsible for RUF crimes.

A 46-year-old man, whose right hand was amputated by rebel forces in January 1999, told me what it would feel like to see Taylor in jail.

“It will be a great day,” Lamin Bangura said. “For not only me, but for the hundreds of Sierra Leoneans who suffered at the hands of the rebels sent by Taylor, if he is sent to jail for the rest of his life.”

At a meeting with university students, the majority held a common position—that Taylor’s subjection to a credible accountability process, whether he is found guilty or not, should bring a measure of satisfaction or justice to the victims of the conflict.

A prominent Pentecostal pastor in Freetown thought otherwise. “I hope Taylor is not released,” he told me.

On a radio discussion program held to commemorate the January 1999 rebel invasion of Freetown, a man made reference to an alleged statement by Taylor in 1990, that “Sierra Leone will taste the bitterness of war.”

“So when rebels entered the country, from Liberia, just as Taylor had predicted, who are we to blame?” Yusuf Kargbo asked. He added, “We all know that RUF rebels reported directly to Taylor. He gave them arms and ammunition to attack us in this country…”

Another man called into the radio program and said, “We should blame our own Sierra Leonean brothers and sisters for what they did to us during the conflict. Let us stop blaming Taylor. If a foreigner tells me to kill my own brother or sister, I will use my own senses to say no way. So let us not blame Taylor.”

I asked Eldred Collins, the interim leader of the RUF, what he thought about the allegations of Taylor’s support for the RUF.

“Let us wait for the judges to deliver their judgment,” he said.

Many will tell you that the process has taken too long and that all they want to hear now is the judgment.

A university student told me, “If this year comes to an end without a judgment for or against Taylor, we’ll no longer be interested in the trial.”

A taxi driver, who survived several rebel attacks during the conflict, believes that the Taylor trial must be brought to a close so as to allow Sierra Leoneans to forget about anything that has to do with the war.

“The major thing that reminds us about the war is when we see the Special Court and know that it is still trying Charles Taylor,” he told me, as we drove past the court’s Freetown headquarters. “We want this thing over with. Let the judges tell us if Taylor is guilty or not, and then we can put this all behind us.”

For Mabinty, though, the reminders are personal. Looking at her arms and the absence of her parents will always make her think of the war. But while she will carry the pain of her experiences with her, Mabinty believes that ensuring that those responsible for her ordeal are held accountable will still give her a measure of satisfaction.

“We feel like our cries are being heard,” she said. “We feel like there are people who did not suffer like us, but who want to make sure that those responsible for our sufferings are made to answer for their acts. And that the same thing does not happen to other people again.”

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