Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Taylor, Sr. Trial: An Overview of the International Criminal Court Case Against Liberia's Warlord-Turned-President

Following the First Liberian Civil War, Charles Ghankay Taylor was elected to the Liberian presidency on August 2, 1997. He garnered ninety-seven percent of the vote running on the campaign slogan "[h]e killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him." A Libya-trained warlord and commander of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), Taylor and his troops terrorized civilians from 1997 to 2003 as he sought to retain control of Liberia's natural resources and forcibly ward off armed rebel groups such as Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL). By August 2003, rebels closed in on the capital city, Monrovia, and thousands of civilians were killed or forced to flee to neighboring countries. United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) forces soon intervened to implement a cease-fire and facilitate the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement between the warring factions. UNMIL escorted the parties to Accra, Ghana where negotiations ensued.

Meanwhile, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a joint effort between the UN and Sierra Leone, [1] released Taylor's formerly-sealed indictment as he crossed the border into Ghana. Several months earlier, on March 7, 2003, the UN-backed Special Court had indicted Taylor on 17 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes in violation of Article 3 and Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions. It is important to note that this indictment resulted from Taylor's role in the Sierra Leonean Civil War, not the Liberian conflict. Charges included murder, sexual enslavement, rape, terrorist acts, cruel and inhumane treatment, collective punishment of civilians, conscripting child soldiers, and pillage. The UN later amended the indictment to 11 counts, but further charged Taylor with funding, arming, and training the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) of Sierra Leone, allegedly in exchange for a stake in the illicit diamond trade and political support. Leaders from these same rebel groups gained worldwide notoriety for their brutal torture tactics, including decapitation, mass rape, and severing the hands and feet and other body parts of suspected dissidents. In 1997, they became the first parties to be convicted in an international court of conscripting child soldiers.

Facing international pressure from NGOs and heads of state alike, Taylor signed the pending peace agreement on August 11, 2003, stepped down as President, and fled to Nigeria, where he had been offered asylum by then-President Olusegun Obasanjo. On December 4th, the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) issued an international warrant for Taylor's arrest, but he continued to evade authorities for the next three years. During his disappearance, Taylor's counsel brought a motion to challenge the indictment based on sovereign immunity and extraterritoriality, which the Appeals Chamber of the Special Court dismissed on May 31, 2004. On March 29, 2006, Nigerian authorities apprehended Taylor and returned him to Monrovia upon orders from the newly-elected Liberian President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Taylor was then delivered into UN custody and transferred to Freetown, Sierra Leone to stand trial.

Taylor made his initial appearance at the Special Court on April 3, 2006, where he pled not-guilty to all charges. However, a UN Resolution determined that his presence in northwest Africa posed too great a threat to stability and peace in the region to continue the trial in Sierra Leone, and that no other African tribunal had the requisite space and security to host it. Thus, on June 30th, the Security Council ordered Taylor transferred to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, Netherlands. Despite the transfer of venue, the Special Court for Sierra Leone retains full jurisdiction over Taylor's case.

Nearly one year later, on June 4, 2007, Brenda Hollis (Principal Attorney) delivered the Prosecution's opening statement. Taylor then delayed the proceedings by dismissing his counsel and asking the judge for an adjournment until new counsel could be retained. The trial resumed in January 2008, and for the next year the Prosecution introduced the testimony of 91 witnesses, including amputees, rape victims, and former child soldiers, many of whom requested partial face or voice distortion and closed sessions to ensure their safety. The Prosecution rested its case on February 7, 2009. Taylor's attorneys next filed a Motion for Judgment of Acquittal, which asked the judge to rule for Taylor because the evidence presented was insufficient to support a conviction. Presiding Judge Richard Lussick dismissed the motion on May 4, 2009, and scheduled a status conference for July 6th in anticipation of the Defense's opening statement.

At the conference, both Prosecution and Defense raised issues ranging from the trial schedule to the Prosecution's request that Taylor be denied contact with Defense Witnesses. Defense Counsel Courtaney Griffiths said he planned to begin opening arguments on July 13, 2009, but asked to push Taylor's testimony back one day to July 14th. Justice Lussick agreed, but warned Griffiths that the opening statement must not reach beyond the scope of the presented evidence. The most contentious issue was the 256 people listed as potential witnesses for the Defense. Hollis pointed out that this number was three times more than those called by the Prosecution, and that if they were allowed to testify, the trial would continue for 94 more weeks (4 years). Hollis deemed this time frame unacceptable, and Griffiths asserted that not all persons listed would testify, noting that the Prosecution itself had listed 300 witnesses before calling only 91 to the stand. Hollis then requested a list of core and back-up witnesses, and an order from Justice Lussick stating that the Defense must revise and clarify the background summaries of many defense witnesses. This request for a formal order was rejected by the court as unnecessary. Hollis further asserted that the summaries of three layperson witnesses—one who will frame the war as an ethnic conflict, one who will testify to the cause of death of a victim, and one who will contest the statements of the Prosecution's expert witness—imply that they are in fact expert witnesses. Justice Lussick ruled that the Defense could proceed, but that the witnesses would be prohibited under the Rules of Evidence and Procedure if the testimony suggests they are experts.

Sentencing would follow roughly one month after the verdict, with the appeals process ending six months later. Under a January 2002 agreement between Sierra Leone and the UN, Taylor cannot be sentenced to life in prison; however, Britain has volunteered to imprison Taylor for the anticipated 50-year sentence if he is convicted. [1]

by Ally Basak Russell, International Justice Project Legal Intern Summer 2009

[1] The Special Court for Sierra Leone was set up jointly by the Government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations. It is mandated to try those who bear the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law committed in the territory of Sierra Leone since November 30, 1996. See Special Court for Sierra Leone: Home, (last visited July 7, 2009).

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