Charles Taylor this week told Special Court for Sierra Leone judges that he had the approval of the international community to grant political asylum to Sam Bockarie after the rebel commander left Sierra Leone in December 1999. Mr. Taylor also told the judges that West African leaders unanimously agreed to change the leadership of Sierra Leone’s rebel group when the group’s leader Foday Sankoh was arrested in 2000.
On Monday, Mr. Taylor told the judges that Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) leaders realized that Sam Bockarie’s continued presence in Sierra Leone was a hindrance to the peace process in the country and a unanimous decision was taken that he should leave the country and obtain political asylum in Liberia.
“Bockarie did not voluntarily leave Sierra Leone. ECOWAS extracted Bockarie from Sierra Leone. That’s how he left. He did not leave Sierra Leone voluntarily. He came to Liberia in December of 1999. People did not know the inside story. But this is what happened. It was an ECOWAS extraction, they took him out of Sierra Leone, he had no choice,” Mr. Taylor said.
When the government of Sierra Leone and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels signed a peace agreement in June 1999, the disarmament of combatants started in the country. Reports indicate that while RUF leader, Foday Sankoh, wanted all his forces to be disarmed, his deputy Sam Bockarie was opposed to such a move. This led to a conflict between Mr. Sankoh and Mr. Bockarie, and at the time, according to Mr. Taylor, “it appears Bockarie wants to challenge Sankoh.” Mr. Bockarie eventually left Sierra Leone for Liberia with about 400 rebel fighters who were loyal to him.
As part of the arrangement to get Mr. Bockarie out of Sierra Leone and relocate him to Liberia, Mr. Taylor said that the United States government agreed to provide scholarship for Mr. Bockarie to undergo military training in the United States.
“The United States promised that they would assist, not the upkeep of the people but the discussion was held as to what to do for Bockarie and they had said that they would probably help to give him a scholarship to do extended military training at one of their military bases in the United States but that did not come to pass,” he said.
Mr. Taylor also said that Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, gave a sum of 50,000 United States dollars to sustain Mr. Bockarie and his men in Liberia.
Mr. Taylor said he later on found it strange when the United Nations and the United States opposed Mr. Bockarie’s presence in Liberia. “This is strange. The man has just come in after agreeing with me and now you want me to throw him out? The same US had said they would give Bockarie training so he will cease to be a rebel.”
Mr. Taylor said that once Mr. Bockarie and his men were in Liberia and had obtained Liberian citizenship, his government decided to recruit them into the security sector. They were all trained and became part of Mr. Taylor’s Anti Terrorist Unit (ATU)–an elite force that provided security for Mr. Taylor. The ATU was headed by Mr. Taylor’s son Chuckie Taylor, who himself has been convicted in the United States for crimes of torture committed in Liberia.
Several prosecution witnesses testified that in 1999, when Mr. Bockarie fell out with RUF leader Mr. Sankoh, Mr. Taylor willingly offered to host Mr. Bockarie in Liberia, providing houses for him and his family and sending him and his fighters to launch attacks in Ivory Coast. Mr. Taylor has denied these allegations.
On Tuesday, Mr. Taylor explained how he successfully negotiated the release of United Nations peacekeepers who were held hostage by rebel forces in Sierra Leone.
In May 2000, when RUF rebels took United Nations peacekeepers hostage in Sierra Leone, Mr. Taylor said that he was mandated by ECOWAS leaders and the United Nations to negotiate with the RUF rebels and secure the release of the hostages. Speaking on behalf of the international community, Mr. Taylor said he expressed his anger to the RUF rebels and told them the hostages needed to be released without any conditions.
Mr. Taylor said he called Issa Sesay, the RUF commander who was in possession of the UN hostages, to meet him in Liberia where the release of the peacekeepers was agreed. Mr. Taylor said ECOWAS leaders, UN and the United States Embassy officials were all informed that he was meeting with Mr. Sesay.
“I was very tied up with this particular situation. I made it clear to Issa Sesay that the UN peacekeepers must be released unconditionally and voiced to him the outrage of the international community,” Mr. Taylor said.
“I was not speaking with Issa Sesay as Taylor but I was speaking for ECOWAS, the African Union and the entire international community. I told Issa that the worst they could play with was the United Nations. I was very upset and thought they were very stupid. I told him the UN people had to be released unconditionally. This was not a friendly chat,” Mr. Taylor explained.
Mr. Sesay, Mr. Taylor said, eventually facilitated the release of the hostages to Liberian authorities in Liberia before they were all handed over to the UN.
On Wednesday, Mr. Taylor denied allegations that he used his personal influence to change the leadership of the RUF in 2000. He explained that after the arrest of the RUF’s leader Foday Sankoh in 2000, the ECOWAS heads of state needed a leader for the RUF with whom to negotiate and at a meeting in Liberia, they all agreed that Mr. Sesay was to take up the leadership of the rebel group.
“After the release of the UN hostages, we were concerned about who was in charge of the RUF in Sierra Leone,” Mr. Taylor said.
Mr. Taylor said that at a July 26, 2000 meeting in Liberia, six ECOWAS leaders asked Mr. Sesay to take over the leadership of the RUF since Mr. Sankoh was no longer in a position to run the rebel movement. Mr. Sesay, according to Mr. Taylor, told the West African leaders that he needed to get the approval of Mr. Sankoh, who was imprisoned in Sierra Leone. He said that Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, and Malian president, Alpha Oumar Konare, traveled together to Sierra Leone and met with Mr. Sankoh in his prison cell. They obtained a letter from him which approved Mr. Sesay as the RUF’s interim leader.
The prosecution has led evidence that when Mr. Sankoh gave his approval to Mr. Sesay’s leadership of the RUF, he told Mr. Sesay to take instructions from Mr. Taylor, and ordered Mr. Sesay not to disarm his rebel forces in Sierra Leone. A number of prosecution witnesses also testified that it was Mr. Taylor who changed the leadership of the RUF. Mr. Taylor dismissed this allegation as “total nonsense.”
Mr. Taylor said that the “circumstances surrounding Issa Sesay’s appointment was public knowlege.”
Mr. Taylor said that ECOWAS leaders, including Sierra Leonean president Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, saw Mr. Sesay as the most ideal person to work with in order to bring peace to Sierra Leone. “We saw him to be a very good fellow,” Mr. Taylor said. “Some credit is due to him for getting on with the process of Lome [The peace agreement between the government of Sierra Leone and the RUF was signed in the Togolese capital Lome in June 1999].”
On Thursday, Mr. Taylor again denied allegations that he had individual influence over the RUF rebels in Sierra Leone. Mr. Taylor reinforced to the judges that he was only able to convince the leadership of the RUF rebels to yield to the demands of peace in Sierra Leone because he had “built the confidence and trust which is necessary in any mediation efforts.”
Asked by his defense counsel Courtenay Griffiths whether he exercised any influence over the RUF rebels, Mr. Taylor said “none whatsoever.”
Mr. Taylor told judges that the rebel leadership listened to him just like they did to other West African leaders who were involved in facilitating a peaceful end to the conflict in Sierra Leone.
“Nigeria had very good contact with the RUF. Burkina Faso and Mali also had very good contact with the RUF. We built confidence and trust with them. They therefore took us seriously,” Mr. Taylor said.
Mr. Taylor also discussed a September 9 2000 Guardian Newspaper article which reported that Nigerian peacekeepers in Sierra Leone were involved in diamond trade with RUF rebels. “There were indications that Nigerian soldiers were involved in the trade of diamonds,” Mr. Taylor said.
Mr. Taylor said that Nigerian military commander, Maxwell Kobe (who was head of the Sierra Leone army) received up to 10 million USD from the RUF, and that former Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) commander General Kpamber (also from Nigeria) worked with RUF leader Foday Sankoh. Mr. Taylor said that “some people referred to Kpamber as Sankoh’s ADC [aide-de-camp].”
Mr. Taylor is being tried on allegations that he provided support to RUF rebels in Sierra Leone through the supply of arms and ammunition in return for diamonds. Diamonds, the prosecution says, were used by Mr. Taylor and RUF rebel leaders to fuel the conflict in Sierra Leone and that through his acts or omissions, Mr. Taylor bears responsibility for the crimes committed by RUF rebels in Sierra Leone. Mr. Taylor has denied the allegations. He is presently testifying as a witness in his own defense.
Mr. Taylor’s testimony continues on Monday.