Former Liberian President, Charles Taylor, today denied knowledge of threats by a Sierra Leonean rebel commander to kill fellow citizens if the group’s leader was not released from jail during the country’s brutal civil conflict. Prosecutors dismissed his denial as impossible: Mr. Taylor had to have known about the threats, not only because he was anointed the point-person for peace by fellow African leaders, but because Mr. Taylor was also helping to plan the rebel attacks, prosecutors alleged. Mr. Taylor has denied all allegations against him.
In a day full of heated exchanges between Charles Taylor and prosecutors, Mr. Taylor’s denial emerged as prosecutors questioned him about his stated role as a peacemaker during the Sierra Leonean war – a role which has formed a central tenet of the former president’s defense during his trial at the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
Mr. Taylor has long maintained that when he became Liberian president in 1997, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) made him the “point-person” for peace in Sierra Leone. After telling the court today that in his capacity as “point-person” for peace in Sierra Leone he was regularly briefed by his National Security Adviser on issues relating to Sierra Leone, Mr. Taylor was questioned by lead prosecutor, Brenda Hollis, about news reports which quoted Revolutionary United Front (RUF) commander Sam Bockarie threatening that he was ready to kill all living things in Sierra Leone if the government did not release RUF leader Foday Sankoh from jail.
“I was not aware of such statements,” Mr. Taylor told the court today.
When asked whether Mr. Bockarie made such statements with his consent or whether it was possible for him to have known of such pronouncements in his capacity as “point-person” for Sierra Leone, Mr. Taylor responded that if he had known of such pronouncements he “would have told Bockarie that such statement was unacceptable.”
Reading from a November 1998 news report on Sierra Leone, Ms. Hollis quoted Mr. Bockarie as saying that “I am a ruthless commander. I am ready to damage but I am waiting for something to happen to our leader.”
When asked whether Mr. Bockarie was in Monrovia when he made such pronouncement, Mr. Taylor said that “we have not even established whether he made this statement. How am I supposed to know that he made such statements? If he made such statements, he was definitely not in Monrovia.”
Mr. Taylor further said that Mr. Bockarie was in Monrovia only in late November to early December 1998, en-route to Burkina Faso. “This news report is on the 19th of November, it does not say when he made the statement,” he added.
Mr. Taylor also said that he was not aware of Mr. Bockarie’s December 1998 threat to attack Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown by the new year if RUF leader Mr. Sankoh was not released.
“I was not aware of that,” Mr. Taylor said.
The threat to attack Freetown was eventually put into effect when in January 1999, rebel forces attacked the country’s capital, an attack that was characterized by the commission of widespread atrocities such us murder, rape, burning of houses and the amputations of the arms and limbs of civilians. Prosecutors have accused Mr. Taylor of being involved in planning the 1999 attack on Freetown. Mr. Taylor has denied the allegations.
Disputing Mr. Taylor’s assertion that he was not aware of plans to attack Freetown in 1999, Ms. Hollis told Mr. Taylor that “it is not true because you took part in planning this operation.”
“Total nonsense,” Mr. Taylor responded.
Ms. Hollis told Mr. Taylor that as “point-person for peace,” he would have known about Mr. Bockarie’s December 1998 public pronouncement that the rebels “will enter the country’s capital on new year’s day except their [RUF] demands were met.”
“All these denials is because your awareness of these pronouncements will undermine your position as point person for peace,” Ms. Hollis told Mr. Taylor.
“No Ms. Hollis, I was not aware of that,” the former president responded.
Ms. Hollis argued that if Mr. Taylor served as “point-person” for peace in Sierra Leone, he obviously would have been briefed on all news reports relating to the actions of the rebel forces in Sierra Leone. Mr. Taylor maintained that he was neither aware of any pronouncements by Mr. Bockarie to destabilize Sierra Leone, nor about rebel plans to attack Freetown in 1999.
Prosecutors have argued throughout the trial that while Mr. Taylor was never present in Sierra Leone when RUF rebels committed atrocities in the country, he was still aware of their actions and gave them his support to commit such atrocities. Prosecutors have argued that Mr. Taylor occupied a superior position to the RUF rebel leaders and that all actions taken by the rebels were done with his acquiescence. In his position of authority over the rebels, prosecutors say, Mr. Taylor knew or had reason to know that rebel forces were committing atrocities in Sierra Leone but failed to prevent the commission of those crimes nor punished the rebels when he knew that such crimes had been committed. It is in this vein that prosecutors today read news reports relating to RUF atrocities in Sierra Leone, which, they say Mr. Taylor was aware of. Mr. Taylor has denied these allegations, insisting that his role in Sierra Leone was purely for peaceful purposes in the West African country.
Mr. Taylor’s cross-examination continues tomorrow.