It is not every day that victims of crimes committed during Sierra Leone’s 11 year brutal conflict express positive emotions when they share their experiences but granted the opportunity to do so, they will not hide their feelings. The recent decision by the Appeals Chamber of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) in upholding Taylor’s conviction and 50 year jail sentence provided that opportunity. Throughout Sierra Leone, this decision has been received with joy, especially among victims of atrocities that Taylor was convicted of having aided and abetted.
In various places in Sierra Leone, where the scars of the country’s bloody conflict are still visible, hundreds of people came out to share their elation with the Court’s Chief Prosecutor Brenda Hollis as she traveled around the country, sometimes through rough terrain and almost undrivable roads, to explain the judgment to Sierra Leoneans. In the diamond mining town of Tombodu, in the Kono district, the infamous “Savage Pit,” named after the notorious rebel commander known as “Savage,” is still visible. Hundreds of civilians killed by Commander Savage were dumped in the said “Savage Pit.” With painful recollection, the residents of the town show the pit to visitors, explaining the massacres they witnessed as well as the family members and friends that remain buried under what looks like a swamp. They did not follow every day of the proceedings in Taylor’s case, but when judges announced their final decision in late September, they listened. And for what they heard, they are happy.
‘We are happy,” a man told me in Tombodu, raising his hands and showing exuberant body movement. “Many of our brothers and sisters did not live to witness this and while we can’t bring them back to life, their souls know that people heard their cry, and for that, we will celebrate,” he added.
Another man, explaining how he narrowly escaped death from rebels in Tombodu said “we are poor but free, Taylor is rich but will never have freedom.”
In Tongo Field, another diamond mining town, civilians were killed and subjected to forced labor for diamonds, many of which judges say were taken to Taylor who in turn supplied the rebels with arms and ammunition. Here, more than 500 residents came to the town-center to listen to the prosecutor. Speaker after speaker expressed their joy over the judgment. Many asked questions about the kind of punishment that Taylor will receive for his crimes. A resident took the microphone and suggested that Taylor must be shown on TV during the course of his sentence so that victims of his crimes will see. Some asked whether he will be subjected to forced labor. The prosecutor took time to explain the international imprisonment standards and how they will apply to Taylor.
A woman in Tongo asked if Taylor’s sentence could be transferred to his son in case he dies before completing his 50 year jail term. Prosecutor Hollis informed her audience that Taylor’s son, Chuckie is already serving a more than 90 year jail term in a US prison for crimes of torture committed in Liberia. There was applause from the crowd.
In Kailahun, home to the Revolutionary United Front’s (RUF’s) headquarters for many years, the residents have moved on but have not forgotten their experiences. Kailahun is the location of the infamous “slaughter house,” which is still painted with blood stains. Like in Tombodu, the residents here are never shy to point this site of unimaginable horror to visitors. They too now share the joy of Taylor’s conviction and sentence.
A woman broke down as she expressed her views on Taylor’s conviction and sentence. She called it tears of joy. “My life will never be the same again, but my heart is satisfied that a man as powerful as Taylor has been made to answer for what the rebels did to me,” she said.
In the country’s capital Freetown, home to the infamous January 1999 rebel invasion, one which judges said Taylor had helped to plan, some people expected a jail term of more than 50 years. Some raised concerns about the comfort of the prison in which Taylor will serve his sentence. SCSL staff have been explaining that prisoners also have rights and that prison facilities must meet specific UN standards. The people listened, but for some, they wish Taylor and the rebels he supported had allowed Sierra Leoneans to enjoy their own rights. A religious leader, acknowledging the importance of the judgment was more concerned about life beyond Taylor’s prison. “We can’t get back what he took from us. Some of us forgave him a long time ago,” she said. “His 50 year jail term is temporary, his real judgment and punishment will come when he faces his maker in the life beyond this world,” she added.
Around the country, views will differ about what everybody expected from this process and the punishment that Taylor deserves. What they all agree on is Taylor’s guilt. In their minds, they have no doubt about Taylor’s involvement in the commission of crimes in Sierra Leone and for which he will now almost possibly spend the rest of his life in jail.
In April 2012, Trial Chamber judges convicted Taylor of aiding and abetting crimes, as well as planning attacks by RUF and Armed Forces Revolutionary Forces (AFRC) rebels in Sierra Leone. He was sentenced to a 50 year jail sentence. On September 26 this year, Appeals Chamber judges upheld both Taylor’s conviction and sentence. He will serve his jail sentence in a British prison.