Today, convicted former Liberian president Charles Taylor made what might be his final public statement in court before Special Court for Sierra Leone judges in The Hague as his defense lawyers and prosecutors made oral submissions on the possible sentence he should serve after being convicted for his involvement in Sierra Leone’s 11 year civil conflict.
After being granted 30 minutes to address the Court, in a gray suit, white shirt, and a light blue tie, Taylor stood in front of the witness stand, using what seemed like his last public statement to address not only the judges and parties to the proceedings in court, but also to the “world audience.”
The former Liberian president started by stating that the “observations” he would make in his speech “are deeply felt and are not limited exclusively to legal issues and this case.”
Taylor denied involvement in the commission of crimes for which he has been convicted and concluded by expressing his sympathy to the people of Sierra Leone for the harm suffered during the conflict in that West African country.
On April 26, Taylor was convicted of aiding and abetting the commission of serious crimes including murder, rape, and use of child soldiers by Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) rebels in Sierra Leone from November 1996 to January 2002.
As he addressed the court today, he went on by explaining that the reasons for which he was brought to trial were not legal but political, accusing western powers, specifically the United States, of having made conclusions about his role in the Sierra Leonean conflict even before the evidence against him was heard. He accused the US government of embarking on a regime change policy in Liberia, calling it the birth of a conspiracy to remove him from the presidency.
“I never stood a chance,” Taylor told the judges.
As he has done throughout his trial, Mr. Taylor presented himself as a peacemaker, although in their judgment of April 26, the judges referred to him as “a two-headed Janus,” meaning that he publicly played a role in the peace process while at the same time secretly fuelling the conflict by arming the rebels and urging them not to disarm.
In his speech today, Taylor told the Court, “What I did to help bring peace to Sierra Leone was done with honor.”
Concluding his statement, Taylor expressed sympathy to the people of Sierra Leone, “I express my sadness and deepest sympathy for the atrocities and crimes that were suffered by individuals and families in Sierra Leone.”
Earlier in the morning, the Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Brenda Hollis, told the judges that the prosecution’s recommended 80 year jail sentence is commensurate with the “gravity of crimes and the specific conduct of the accused.”
Ms. Hollis pointed that the judges should consider the extreme nature of the crimes with which Taylor has been found guilty and the vulnerability of and impact on the victims of atrocities in Sierra Leone. She highlighted Taylor’s role in planning the attacks on Kono, Makeni, and Freetown in late 1998 to early 1999 and his advice to RUF commander Sam Bockarie to “make the operation fearful.” This led the rebels to declare the attack as “operation no living thing.”
“Mr. Taylor was the root which fed the RUF and the RUF/AFRC alliance,” Ms. Hollis told the court.
Ms. Hollis dismissed defense submissions that Mr. Taylor should benefit from mitigating factors, telling the judges today that Taylor should get no credit for the peace in Sierra Leone as the judges themselves have referred to him as a “two-headed Janus,” and that the aggravating circumstances in this case negate any mitigating factors.
She concluded her submission by pointing at the two main goals of sentencing—retribution and deterrence. These, she said were reasons enough for Taylor to be sentenced as has been recommended by the prosecution.
Taylor’s lead defense counsel, Courtenay Griffiths, in his submission told the court that the verdict of the judges as rendered on April 26 is a “modest version of Charles Taylor’s involvement in the Sierra Leone conflict than that proposed by the prosecution.”
Mr. Griffiths pointed out four reasons why Mr. Taylor was to benefit from mitigating circumstances: that the period of offending was not an extended period, save for use of child soldiers and enslavement that cover a more prolonged period in the indictment; Mr. Taylor’s role in the Sierra Leone peace process; his voluntary departure from the Liberian presidency in 2003; and his age, being 64 years already.
Mr. Griffiths told the court that if Taylor is sentenced as recommended by the prosecution, it would amount to a life sentence, it would be offensive to good conscience and logic and that it could endanger the peace that the Special Court was established to enhance.
In his conclusion, Mr. Griffiths told the judges, “Every accused, in our submission, must be left with some hope, must be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, however long that tunnel must be. And we submit that should be a guiding consideration in this sentencing exercise.”
The judges will deliver their verdict on Mr. Taylor’s sentence on Wednesday, May 30.