When former Liberian president Charles Taylor helped secure the release of United Nations peacekeepers held hostage by Sierra Leonean rebels ten years ago, he was really trying to help the rebels gain more control over his neighboring country, prosecutors alleged today. Mr. Taylor disagreed: the safety of the hostages was forefront on his mind, he said.
Prosecutors further questioned Mr. Taylor’s motives in calling for a ceasefire during the hostage crisis, arguing that it would have helped the rebels consolidate control over a key town, Masiaka. Such a ceasefire, prosecutors argued, would have placed the rebels closer to the capital, Freetown, and also provided a bigger buffer zone between the rebel-held diamond mining fields and government-controlled areas. Mr. Taylor denied being motivated by the enlargement of rebel control in Sierra Leone.
“I don’t know the different positions in Sierra Leone where they (the Revolutionary United Front) were,” Mr. Taylor said during his cross-examination at the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
Lead prosecution counsel, Brenda Hollis, today focused her questioning of Mr. Taylor on the May 2000 hostage-taking by RUF rebels, who captured hundreds of UN peacekeepers in Sierra Leone — an action that provoked international outrage. Mr. Taylor, who was sitting president of Liberia at the time, negotiated with the RUF rebels and secured the release of the UN peacekeepers. Prosecutors have long alleged that Mr. Taylor was able to secure the release of the UN hostages because he had some special control over the RUF rebel commanders. Mr. Taylor has denied these suggestions, saying that his involvement in the release of the peacekeepers was done mainly because he was asked by the international community to intervene and get the rebels to release the hostages, which he did.
During today’s testimony, the court heard that when the RUF rebels released the first set of 139 UN peacekeepers, Mr. Taylor told the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General (SRSG) in Sierra Leone at the time, Ambassador Oluyemi Adeniji, that he wanted an “immediate cessation of hostilities” in Sierra Leone in order to facilitate the release of the remaining hostages.
In doing so, he was concerned that “the lives of the remaining hostages would be at risk if the pro-government forces continued pushing the rebels out of the areas that they had taken,” according to Mr. Taylor.
Ms. Hollis noted that at the time of the release of the UN hostages, the RUF rebels had occupied the town of Masiaka, a strategic position that was in proximity to both the country’s capital Freetown and the diamond mining areas.
“And also Mr. Taylor, had the RUF been left in place in Masiaka, that would have put them much closer to the capital of Freetown, wouldn’t it?” Ms. Hollis asked Mr. Taylor.
“I disagree with your proposition,” Mr. Taylor responded.
“And it would have given a larger buffer zone between the diamond areas and the government held-territories. Isn’t that correct, Mr. Taylor?” Ms. Hollis enquired further.
In his response, the former president said that “your proposition, maybe you could very well be correct, but I disagree that that was foremost on my mind. I was mostly concerned about the lives of the hostages.”
In response to Ms. Hollis’s suggestion that while requesting an immediate ceasefire he had actually mentioned the town Masiaka to the SRSG, Mr. Taylor said that “I could have based on his statements to me and the issue was we have people in captivity, there is no point attacking, you could even kill them. And if I mentioned it at that time, it was based on maybe his explanation. My answer to you is that I don’t know the geography of Sierra Leone to determine as to whether it was an important junction.”
Also in his cross-examination today, Mr. Taylor agreed with Ms. Hollis that he paid about 1.8 million United States dollars to US firms to do public relations work for his government, which aimed at improving the image of Liberia to the international community. Asked by Ms. Hollis whether that money was not too much of tax-payers’ money of a war-ravaged country to be spent on public relations work, Mr. Taylor said that “it’s subjective. For me, that was not enough because I know other governments that pay up to five million US dollars to firms in Washington DC, so that was not enough for me.”
Mr. Taylor maintained that he was justified to spend such amount of money because “most little governments, if you don’t lobby in Washington, you really get smashed.”
Mr. Taylor again today dismissed prosecution suggestions that the Liberian government under his presidency did not respect fundamental human rights. When Ms. Hollis pointed out reports of police brutality in Liberia under his presidency, Mr. Taylor maintained that he was not informed of such actions by the Liberian police force.
Proceedings in the Taylor trial will not be held tomorrow as the judges will be using the day to attend to other matters.
Mr. Taylor’s cross-examination continues on Thursday.