Former Liberian President, Charles Taylor, will take the stand next Tuesday amid a blaze of media cameras and lights. As the first sitting African head of state to be indicted and prosecuted for his alleged responsibility for some of the worst crimes known to humanity, the laser beam of international attention will zero in as he tells his side of the story. He is pleading not guilty to 11 charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law for his alleged role in a war which ravaged Sierra Leone for 11 years.
The media spotlight can have a downside. For example, lawyers for Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, a Congolese militia leader on trial at the International Criminal Court for allegedly recruiting child soldiers, lamented on the second day of his trial in January 2009 that Lubanga had already been declared guilty by the media. “In the press he is already convicted, convicted before being tried. And in the eyes of a vast majority, as soon as there is an arrest warrant and as soon as the charges are confirmed and the matter is committed to trial, the presumption of innocence disappears,” said Catherine Mabille, Lubanga’s head defense lawyer.
With Charles Taylor, prosecuted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, speculation abounds about his role in the Sierra Leonean war and his alleged link to the crimes committed there. The prosecution spent 13 months bringing Sierra Leonean survivors to the stand whose limbs had been amputated, or who had been raped or sexually enslaved by groups allegedly under Taylor’s control. They also sought testimony from insider witnesses in an effort to link Taylor to the crimes which were so vividly illustrated by the victims themselves. We have, though, only heard one side of the story.
On Tuesday, we’ll hear Taylor’s side. This matters for reasons beyond the narrative he will tell us in court.
1. A fair trial right: Taylor, like all defendants before international courts, has the right to be presumed innocent and to defend himself – in person or through the lawyer of his choice. These are two in a package of elements which make up fair trial rights, according to the Special Court for Sierra Leone’s own laws as well as both African and international human rights treaties. Taylor has the chance to exercise these rights on Tuesday when he takes the stand to tell his story. We need to listen and not pre-judge his responsibility. That is up to the judges at the end of the trial.
2. A Return of the Rule of Law: The breakdown of the rule of law, and lack of access to justice, was one of the key root causes of the violence in Sierra Leone, according to the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Taylor’s appearance on the stand to defend his actions and account for his alleged responsibility is a visible reminder that nobody – no matter how big or how powerful – is above the law. This is an important visual reconstruction of the rule of law for a society whose fabric was torn apart by war. Taylor taking the stand in an internationalized court that is working fairly is a complement to the work that Sierra Leone’s own legal reconstruction efforts. Sierra Leonean judges, lawyers and law enforcement professionals have undertaken their own national efforts to combat impunity for mass crimes – in 2002 the national judicial system prosecuted other suspected perpetrators for crimes committed after the Lome Peace Accord was signed in 1999. Meanwhile, on a broader level, the Sierra Leone Bar Association is committed to building a record of the country’s own national jurisprudence by developing and compiling law reports as part of an effort to reconstruct Sierra Leone’s rich legal history and make it available to a new generation of lawyers. On the internationalized front, Sierra Leonean lawyers, judges, translators and other court staff have worked together alongside international counterparts to make the Taylor trial possible. Taylor taking the stand, then, is a stark reminder of how far the rule of law has come in Sierra Leone come since the brutality and chaos of war ended less than a decade ago.
3. Taylor as a Symbol of International Commitment to Fighting Impunity: Taylor’s appearance on the stand at his own trial marks a milestone in international efforts to create a norm of accountability for mass crimes. Over a series of years, heads of state, diplomats and civil society from all over the world – Africa, Europe, the Americas and elsewhere – joined forces to bring Taylor to trial. This included the United Nations, the African Union, ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States), as well as the United States, Liberian and Nigerian governments, to name a few, who combined to shift Taylor into exile in Nigeria in 2003 and eventually to the Special Court in 2006. This came with the help of civil society: for instance, starting in 2004, two Nigerian businessmen, David Anyaele and Emmanuel Egbuna, whose limbs were allegedly amputated by Taylor’s forces in Liberia, challenged Taylor’s asylum in Nigeria and sought to have him extradited to the Special Court for Sierra Leone to face justice.
These efforts did not presuppose Taylor’s guilt or innocence, but rather recognized that he had a case to answer for the crimes during the war in Sierra Leone – and that such an answer was most appropriately given in court in the context of a trial. Accountability and the commitment to impunity is a principle that is shared across continents and oceans. The Taylor trial is proof of this.
The media are not the only ones which will eagerly await Taylor’s testimony on Tuesday. We all have an interest in hearing what he has to say. His side of the story is important. Not only will it add to our understanding of the role he allegedly played in the Sierra Leonean war and to our historical understanding of the conflict, but it will provide the victimized community with one more reminder that their suffering has not been forgotten.