Front Row Seats at the Trial of Charles Taylor

Esther Brandon

Writing from the Brandeis in The Hague spring semester program

On April 26, 2012 Charles Taylor was convicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone on 11 criminal counts. 

Charles Taylor was the President of Liberia, 1997 to 2003. He was convicted of aiding and abetting brutal rebel movements that committed mass atrocities in Sierra Leone during its civil war in the 90’s. The Trial Court found he had helped plan the capture of diamond mines and the invasion of the capital, Freetown. During the movement, over 50,000 people died, while countless others fled the country or took refuge in camps. Taylor is the first head of state to be convicted by an international court since the Nuremberg trials after World War II.

When I first laid eyes on Mr. Taylor, I was extremely surprised by his demeanor. He appeared in a blue pinstriped suit with a maroon tie. During the reading, he sat stoically, occasionally taking notes with a yellow ballpoint pen. I expected to see a man capable of great violence, a person who ordered the deaths of thousands for the sake of diamonds and personal gain. Instead, I saw a man looking a little sad, with no evil gleam in his eye as he was convicted of aiding & abetting with the planning of:

  • 5 counts of crimes against humanity: murder, rape, sexual slavery, other inhumane acts, and enslavement.
  • 5 counts of violations of Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions: acts of terrorism, violence to life, health and physical or mental well-being of persons, in particular murder; outrages upon personal dignity; violence to life, health and physical or mental well-being of persons, in particular cruel treatment; and pillage.
  • 1 count of conscripting or enlisting child soldiers under the age of 15 years.

His sentencing is scheduled for Wednesday May 30, 2012.

The Office of the Prosecutor used great innovation to prove Taylor’s connection to the crimes committed in Sierra Leone while he lived in Liberia. They referenced radio and telephone intercepts and brought in radio operators who had connected Mr. Taylor’s residence in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, to the rebels in Sierra Leone. Taylor’s head of security, bodyguards and other associates testified about arms and ammunition shipments for use by the rebel forces. Bank records proved tax payments entered into Taylor’s personal bank account that were used for the war effort.

The most interesting moment of the trial was the last 30 seconds, as Alternate Judge Malick Sow of Senegal tried to give a dissenting opinion. His microphone’s sound was cut off after 30 seconds, but the defense lawyers were able to transcribe his words, and discussed them during the press conference following the trial. As the other three judges rose and prepared to leave the courtroom, Justice Sow said:

“The only moment where a Judge can express his opinion is during deliberations or in the courtroom, and pursuant to the Rules, when there is no deliberations, the only place left for me in the courtroom. I won’t get — because I think we have been sitting for too long but for me I have my dissenting opinion and I disagree with the findings and conclusions of the other Judges, because for me under any mode of liability, under any accepted standard of proof the guilt of the accused from the evidence provided in this trial is not proved beyond reasonable doubt by the Prosecution. And my only worry is that the whole system is not consistent with all the principles we know and love, and the system is not consistent with all the values of international criminal justice, and I’m afraid the whole system is under grave danger of just losing all credibility, and I’m afraid this whole thing is headed for failure. Thank you for your attention.”

It is very interesting that Judge Sow did not think the evidence proved beyond reasonable doubt and that Taylor was indeed connected to the crimes which occurred in Sierra Leone.

Various diplomats, notable members of the International Law community, including ICC judges and former prosecutors attended the hearing, seated in the Public Gallery overlooking the courtroom. Representatives from several civil society groups in Liberia also traveled to The Hague to see the judgment. In addition, the trial was streamed by internet and radio to Sierra Leone.

This is the last trial of the Special Court of Sierra Leone (SCSL); the first of the international courts to complete its mandate. The main office in Sierra Leone is in the process of closing, liquidating its assets, and returning the building to the Sierra Leonean government. Currently there is an outstanding warrant for John Paul Koroma (the leader of the rebel group Armed Forces Revolutionary Council), who has still not been found. After the Taylor case is closed, the SCSL will begin its transition into a “residual” court, the first of the international tribunals to do so. It will be tasked with archiving records, expanding the court till Koroma is found, and other ongoing responsibilities.

Brandeis student Kochava Ayoun is completing an internship with the Registrar of the Special Court of Sierra Leone in The Hague sub office on residual issues. She is also part of the Brandeis in The Hague spring semester program.

Official Press Release

Summary of the Judgment 

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