Former Liberian President, Charles Taylor, this week 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 also denied prosecution allegations that he sent rebel fighters to destabilize neighbouring Ivory Coast, arguing that his involvement in the country was purely for peaceful purposes.
On Monday, in response to prosecution allegations that he had knowledge of planned criminal actions of Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in Sierra Leone while he occupied the position of “point-person” for Sierra Leone’s peace talks, Mr. Taylor told the judges that he had no knowledge of public threats made by RUF commander Sam Bockarie that he would kill all Sierra Leoneans if RUF leader Foday Sankoh was not released from jail.
In a day full of heated exchanges between Mr. 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, and that his actions towards his neighboring state were rooted in that role. After telling the court on Monday 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 regarding Mr. Bockarie’s threats.
“I was not aware of such statements,” Mr. Taylor told the court on Monday.
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.”
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 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 on Monday 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.
Also on Monday, prosecutors read a statement by a former Nigerian Force Commander of West African peacekeeprs General Victor Malu who reportedly said that Mr. Taylor opposed West African peacekeepers’ use of Liberia as a base for their operations in Sierra Leone. According to General Malu, Mr. Taylor wanted to surround himself with proteges in neighbouring countries “who will do his bidding.” Mr. Taylor dismissed the comments as “totally untrue.”
On Tuesday, prosecutors sought to establish that the international community pulled away from Liberia under Mr. Taylor’s presidency. The international community’s withdrawal, prosecutors said, was not because of an international conspiracy to scapegoat Mr. Taylor (as Mr. Taylor has argued as part of his defense case), but because the country did not enjoy good governance, with widespread reports of human rights abuse, corruption and political interference with the country’s judiciary. Questioning Mr. Taylor about his alleged judicial interference, Ms. Hollis read a report of a conference at which lawyers and other judicial officials made statements that the “Liberian judiciary is rotten.” Ms. Hollis quoted two Liberian lawyers who both alleged that there was a “strong influence of the government on the judiciary.” She further read portions of the statement made at the conference by the then Chief Justice of Liberia that there was government interference in the judiciary and that the government’s financial support to the judiciary was very low.
Mr. Taylor dismissed the allegations as “totally incorrect.”
Referring to the report on the conference as read by Ms. Hollis in court on Tuesday, Mr. Taylor said that “your conclusion of this entire document is ludicrous.”
“The judiciary was rotten, I agree with the contents, but I met it this way and I’m trying to fix it. This is a conference where Liberians are trying to solve historical problems,” Mr. Taylor said.
In seeking to demonstrate the dire human rights situation in Liberia under Mr. Taylor’s presidency, Ms. Hollis also read portions of a letter written to Mr. Taylor by former United States president Jimmy Carter on November 6, 2000, explaining why his human rights organization, The Carter Center for Human Rights, was withdrawing from Liberia.
“Because of prevailing conditions and the actions of your government, you have made it difficult for the Carter Center and others to operate within democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Reports of serious human rights abuses are common, journalists and civil society members are suppressed. Liberia’s role in the conflicts in the sub-region has become a destructive one,” President Carter was quoted as writing in his November 2000 letter on Tuesday.
Mr. Taylor agreed that President Carter made it clear to him why the organization was pulling out of Liberia, but said that the two men continued to discuss the situation in Liberia even after the group withdrew.
On Wednesday, the accused former Liberian president denied allegations that he sent fighters to destabilize neighboring Ivory Coast.
Mr. Taylor was responding to prosecution allegations that he had an agenda to destabilize the West African sub-region by not only supporting RUF rebels in Sierra Leone, but that he also gave similar support to other rebel forces in the Ivory Coast. Ms. Hollis read several reports in court which alleged that Mr. Taylor did send fighters to Ivory Coast in support of rebel groups in that country. Mr. Taylor dismissed all the reports as “totally incorrect.”
Reading from a May 2005 Frontline World news interview with Mr. Taylor’s former defense minister Daniel Chea, Ms. Hollis quoted Mr. Chea as saying that “On the Ivorian issue, when I realised that militia forces from Liberia were involved, I talked to him [Mr. Taylor] one day… and I said ‘Look, before going into an area, you must have an objective, either military or political, and in this case, we have none. We have our own issues, we are under attack by LURD [Liberians United for Reconciliation and Development] forces.’ And he said to me, ‘Well, Dan, sometimes there are things that you do not understand. There are too many things happening in this region, and sometimes you can be consumed, and you can be assured that whatever it is will get under control.’”
Mr. Taylor dismissed the news report as “untrue.”
“That is not right. This is an interview. No one knows who conducted the interview, no one knows this paper. My minister of defense, knowing that I was fighting a war, could not have said this to me,” Mr. Taylor said.
Ms. Hollis also read a portion of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) report in which it is stated that “October 21, 2002: The incursion by Benjamin Yeaten, Joe Tuah, Edward Zarmey, Joe Walloe, Osebeo Dehmin, and Mathew Karn into Ivory Coast on the mandate of Charles Taylor. The purpose of the incursion was to act as mercenaries for Philip Doh. A number of people died in the operation, including those who refused to sign on.”
Mr. Taylor also dismissed the TRC’s findings as untrue, saying that it is merely somebody’s opinion.
“That’s total nonsense. Totally incorrect. This is an opinion of somebody that has not been tested in this court. Totally incorrect,” he said.
Also read in court by Ms. Hollis was an April 2003 report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) which revealed that after the assassination of the Ivory Coast’s former military ruler, Robert Guei, Mr. Taylor sent fighters to assist Mr. Guei’s supporters who had promised to revenge the former military ruler’s death.
“At least 500 fighters from Mr. Taylor’s former NPFL [National Patriotic Front of Liberia] rebel group, from the Sierra Leone RUF and ‘able bodied men and women trained in Nimba County, apparently crossed into Danane to join fighters that had been loyal to General Guei. Liberians in Nimba County reportedly saw Taylor’s commanders Benjamen Yeaten and Roland Duo take truckloads of Liberian fighters recruited in Nimba County to Danene late at night every week following Guei’s death,” the report said.
In his response to the ICG report, Mr. Taylor said that “I disagree with everything you have read here. I disagree with this… it is warped. It is totally incorrect, everything that you have read.”
While Mr. Taylor is being tried for his alleged support to RUF rebel forces in Sierra Leone, prosecutors have sought to establish that Mr. Taylor had a policy to destabilize the West African sub-region by supporting rebel groups in various countries including in Ivory Coast. To establish that Mr. Taylor’s activities in Sierra Leone were of a consistent pattern, prosecutors have tried to lead evidence on his alleged activities in Ivory Coast, arguing that it was similar to that of his alleged support to RUF rebels in Sierra Leone. Mr. Taylor has maintained that his involvement in these countries was merely to enhance peace in the sub-region. Ms. Hollis said otherwise.
“Mr. Taylor, in the Ivory Coast, while you were publicly presenting yourself as working for peace, you were in fact involved in escalating and continuing the conflict in Ivory Coast…And in fact Mr. Taylor, that is similar to your approach regarding Sierra Leone, isn’t it?” Ms. Hollis asked Mr. Taylor.
Mr. Taylor responded that “that is not correct.”
Also in his cross-examination today, Mr. Taylor dismissed suggestions that he ordered the execution of RUF commander Sam Bockarie because he knew that Mr. Bockarie had been indicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone and he did not want Mr. Bockarie in the hands of the court.
While denying that he ordered the execution of Mr. Bockarie, Mr. Taylor also insisted that at the time of Mr. Bockarie’s death in 2003, he did not know that Mr. Bockarie had been indicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Ms. Hollis read news reports which revealed that as of March 10, 2003, seven people had been indicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone and this included Mr. Bockarie. Mr. Taylor insisted that he did not hear the news reports.
“I did not hear the announcement,” Mr. Taylor said.
Also on Wednesday, Mr. Taylor questioned the contents of a 2003 United Nations Panel of Experts Report which revealed that Mr. Taylor used MI2 and MI17 helicopters to transport arms and ammunition into Liberia, in contravention of a United Nations arms embargo on the country. Mr. Taylor denied ever having an MI17 helicopter in Liberia.
“You know, it’s regretable. I swear to my life, these panel of experts lied. I never had an MI17 helicopter. These panel of experts sadly lied,” he said.
On Thursday, Ms. Hollis told Mr. Taylor that he waged a civil war in Liberia not because he wanted to free the Liberian people but because he was desperate to capture political power. Mr. Taylor dismissed this claim.
In his direct-examination, Mr. Taylor had testified before that court that the controversial elections of 1985 in which the then Liberian president, Samuel Doe, had cheated his political rival Jackson Doe of victory had been a major contributor to the conflict in the country. Mr. Taylor said that his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) rebel group had aimed to oust Master Sergeant Doe and get Jackson Doe to power. In his cross-examination this week, prosecutors aimed to impeach Mr. Taylor’s credibility as a witness by suggesting that Mr. Taylor had just used Jackson Doe’s name as a public relations stunt and that his aim was to capture power himself. The former Liberian president disagreed.
In putting her points to Mr. Taylor on Thursday, Ms. Hollis asserted that the NPFL’s “right and bounded duty to rid the people of Liberia of the despotism by whatever means at your disposal wasn’t really a true statement.” Instead, the group’s aim was to capture political power.
“You wanted to rid Liberia of Master Sergeant Doe because you wanted to be in power in Liberia,” Mr. Hollis put to Mr. Taylor.
“You can draw your own conclusion but I disagree,” Mr. Taylor responded.
“And Mr. Taylor had you, after Master Sergeant Doe’s death in 1991 made Jackson F Doe president, then your years of civil war wouldn’t have occurred, would they?” Ms. Hollis enquired further.
“I don’t know the basis of your conclusion, maybe from some expertise, but I disagree with your conclusion or your assumptions, or your speculations, I cannot comment on speculations. We have serious disagreements with that,” Mr. Taylor responded.
Prosecutors have been seeking to impeach Mr. Taylor’s credibility as a witness testifying in his own defense. In his cross-examination, prosecutors have not only questioned Mr. Taylor about events occurring in Sierra Leone, for which he stands charged before the Special Court for Sierra Leone, but they have sought to question him about his activities in Liberia in order to establish that the actions of rebel forces in Sierra Leone were consistent with those of the NPFL in Liberia. Prosecutors have also sought to establish that Mr. Taylor was not truthful on many issues that he discussed during his direct-examination. One of the issues covered today was to establish that Mr. Taylor was not truthful about his reasons for waging a war in Liberia. It will be for the judges to determine whether Mr. Taylor has been credible as a witness or not.
Also in court Thursday, lead prosecutor Ms. Hollis informed the court that she will need about 7-8 more days to conclude the cross-examination of Mr. Taylor.
Mr. Taylor is responding to charges that he was involved in a joint criminal enterprise with RUF rebels in Sierra Leone. Mr. Taylor has denied allegations that he supplied arms and ammunition to the rebels in return for Sierra Leone’s blood diamonds and that he helped them plan certain operations during which atrocities such as rape, murder and amputation of civilian arms were committed. From July 14 to November 10, 2009, Mr. Taylor testified in direct-examination as a witness in his own defense.
Mr. Taylor’s cross-examination continues on Monday.