Sierra Leoneans say they are losing interest in the Charles Taylor trial because it is taking too long and they are not getting enough information about the high profile case that is taking place half way around the world in The Hague. Reactions from Freetown underscore the need for the Special Court for Sierra Leone to further ramp up its outreach efforts in the sub-region, including through new efforts to reinvigorate lagging interest in the trial.
Since the trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor was transferred to The Hague in 2006, the Special Court for Sierra Leone has been faced with immense challenges in implementing effective outreach programs that will inform the people of Sierra Leone and Liberia about the progress of proceedings in the trial. When the trial started in earnest in January 2008, many Sierra Leoneans relied on short radio programs and video clips of the proceedings in order to be kept informed of the trial. According to many Sierra Leoneans with whom discussions were held between late December 2009 and early January 2010, the Special Court for Sierra Leone’s outreach efforts on the Taylor trial, especially the streaming of video clips of proceedings, was short lived. For several months after the start of the proceedings in the Taylor trial, the court facilitated a live streaming of the proceedings within the court rooms in Freetown. What the court failed to do was to develop an effective strategy that will bring ordinary Sierra Leoneans into the court room to view the proceedings. A few media practitioners used to visit the court to watch proceedings especially when Mr. Taylor started his testimony as a witness in his own defense, but with time, this has ceased to be the case. People seem to have now become generally apathetic towards the trial and so no one goes to the court anymore to watch the proceedings. Since there are no more persons to watch the proceedings, the Special Court has ceased showing live proceedings in the court rooms. Proceedings are only now shown in the Special Court’s canteen for staff members who are interested to sit there and watch the trial. Other staff members watch the proceedings live through computers in their various offices.
In a discussion with a Sierra Leonean court monitor who has followed the proceedings over the years, he explained that “people appear not to be interested in the proceedings any longer, so the court rooms are virtually empty.” Asked what was responsible for the lack of interest among Sierra Leoneans, he added that “many factors, but I can just name two right now. One, Taylor has taken too long on the stand, and this might have led to people becoming bored. Two, too many legal issues coming up that people cannot really pay attention to,” he said.
This response resonated with many other Sierra Leoneans with whom discussions were held during the period under review. At a meeting with 17 university students on the University of Sierra Leone campus on December 28, 2009, a few of them expressed surprise to know that Mr. Taylor was still on the witness stand at that time. Apparently, most of these students had followed the start of Mr. Taylor’s direct-examination but lost interest when the testimony was taking too long. Asked how come some students knew about the start of Mr. Taylor’s testimony but did not know whether Mr. Taylor was still testifying before the court, one of them responded that “the process has taken too long. When Charles Taylor started his testimony, we all found it very fascinating but for one witness to testify for several months, it becomes boring and affects people’s interests in following the process.”
In downtown Freetown, the sentiments expressed by the domestic court monitor were confirmed through discussions with ordinary Sierra Leoneans, civil society and a few legal practitioners. The general perception is that people are losing interest in the trial because it has taken too long.
A Sierra Leonean lawyer who has worked with the Special Court in the past had this to say. “Generally, to have a trial within our domestic system which takes several years to complete, people will lose interest. It even becomes more challenging for an international tribunal, which the people do not feel so much a part of and which conducts its proceedings several thousands of miles way. That is what has happened to the Special Court. Apart from those who are employed by the court, many ordinary people want this whole thing done and over with.”
A local taxi driver, asked about his impressions of the trial, said in Sierra Leone’s local language Krio “bra, we don tire sef, anytin den wan do now, mek den do am, once we cam dreg na morning en get wetin for eat, we nor care again.” Translated, he said “Boss, we are now tired, let them do anything that they want to do, as long as we can get up in the morning and come find something to eat, we do not care anymore.”
On various radio programs that were held in Freetown during which the Taylor trial was the topic of discussion, some Sierra Leoneans expressed similar sentiments as to the amount of money spent on the trial, the length of the trial and how it has affected the interests of the people. Another comment that came out during one of the radio programs on the United Nations radio was whether Mr. Taylor’s trial will have a positive or negative impact on future conflicts in other countries. “Once a warlord knows that giving himself up will lead to prosecutions, he will not hand himself over. That is the case now in Sudan and Northern Uganda,” said one participant. Another person spoke about how Mr. Taylor’s trial also confirms that the international tribunals are only interested in going after African leaders, and not one of their own.
While there is a general lack of interest in the trial among many Sierra Leoneans, their views on Mr. Taylor and his testimony are different. Many people with whom discussions were held expressed the view that Mr. Taylor is guilty of supporting the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels and so he must be found guilty. Some went as far as expressing views that Mr. Taylor must be executed like the many victims of Sierra Leone’s bloody conflict.
“Charles Taylor stole our diamonds, he sent rebels to come and kill us, he is a blood thirsty warlord,” were the words of a local fisherman who spends his time along Sierra Leone’s Lumley beach, fending for fish that he sells to local business women.
“Charles Taylor’s victims did not have the chance that he has now to tell the world his own story. We should just execute him and cut this whole story short,” said a secondary school pupil in Freetown.
“Let him give back all our diamonds and apologize to his numerous victims in Sierra Leone and Liberia,” were the words of another secondary school pupil in Freetown.
At the December 28, 2009 meeting with university students, in response to questions as to whether Mr. Taylor’s testimony has changed perceptions about him among Sierra Leoneans, some students maintained that they still believe the former Liberian president should bear responsibility for the actions of the RUF in Sierra Leone.
“Mr. Taylor has always been a very smart and articulate war lord,” one student said. “We always expected that he would deny the allegations against him but listening to his testimony, every sensible person should know that Mr. Taylor is telling lies. How can the man say that he did not know Foday Sankoh before the war started in Sierra Leone? How can he say that he was equally surprised to hear that RUF rebels had attacked Sierra Leone in 1991? The man is a liar,” another student added.
While these individual sentiments dominated discussions among the students, there was a general consensus that any verdict that is rendered by the court will only be meaningful if the process remains fair in line with international standards.
Judging from the discussions with people in Sierra Leone, Mr. Taylor’s testimony has done little or nothing to change the perceptions of ordinary Sierra Leoneans about his alleged association with the RUF rebels.
One Freetown-based teacher expressed the view that while he believes that Mr. Taylor is guilty of the charges against him, the money spent to try him could have been better spent to assist the numerous war victims in Sierra Leone. “As a Christian, I do not believe in an eye for an eye. I believe that whatever a man does on this earth, he will be rewarded by God almighty. The bible says that ‘vengeance is mine, says the Lord.’ Let us leave Taylor alone, he will answer to his maker,” she said.
Another point to note on the perceptions of Sierra Leoneans is the lack of understanding as to what will eventually happen to Mr. Taylor if he is found guilty after trial. Many people with whom discussions were held expressed the view that Mr. Taylor must be executed if he is found guilty, not knowing that the Special Court does not impose the death penalty on any convicted person. Many others do not know where Mr. Taylor will be imprisoned if he is found guilty.
In a discussion with a female Liberian national who now lives in Sierra Leone, she expressed how much she loves Mr. Taylor and how devastated she was to know that the former Liberian president is being tried by the Special Court. In her view, Sierra Leoneans should take responsibility for what happened in their country rather that making Mr. Taylor answerable for what happened. She, like many Sierra Leoneans, also lacks an understanding of the process. For example, she never knew that Mr. Taylor has been testifying as a witness in his own defense, could not tell what will happen to Mr. Taylor if he is found guilty and she could not tell which prominent Liberians had testified against their former president. She expressed shock to learn that Mr. Taylor’s former vice president, Moses Blah testified against him. She still believes that Mr. Taylor should return as president of Liberia.
Meanwhile, confusion existed over which court was trying Mr. Taylor. Some Sierra Leoneans believe that Mr. Taylor is being tried not by the Special Court, but by the International Criminal Court (ICC). At the December 28, 2009 meeting with university students, it was discovered that while majority of the students fully understand the details of the case and have followed the proceedings closely, a few still lack understanding of which court is trying the former Liberian president. Out of a total of 17 students who took part in the discussions, six of them believed that once the Special Court for Sierra Leone transferred Mr. Taylor to The Hague in 2006, the conduct of his trial was entirely transferred into the hands of the ICC.
On the whole, the views expressed by Sierra Leoneans during these discussions go to show how much outreach needs to be done in order to get Sierra Leoneans interested in the trial again, and for them to understand the process and cease the misperceptions on who is trying Mr. Taylor or what will happen to him if he is found guilty or acquitted.
In a discussion with a member of Sierra Leone’s civil society, he expressed disappointment at the lack of outreach efforts by the Special Court. In his view, the court is doing nothing to reach the ordinary Sierra Leoneans about the Taylor trial. Asked how effective he thought the court’s outreach efforts on the Taylor trial were, he had this to say:
“Not much man…in fact, they have done very little in terms of outreach both in Freetown and in the provinces. In terms of effectiveness, you cannot measure that since much has not been done.”
These views were, however, dismissed by the Outreach Coordinator of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Patrick Fatoma, who asserted that the court’s outreach staff have been doing effective outreach on the Taylor trial, just like they used to do on the other trials which have already been concluded in Freetown.
“The format of the Special Court’s outreach has not changed, though with Charles Taylor, there is distance. To overcome the challenges of the distance, the Special Court has intensified the programs, doing screenings of videos in Freetown and the provinces, as well as Liberia,” Mr. Fatoma said.
Mr. Fatoma explained that the court maintains 17 outreach officers around the country who, on two days of every week, show the Taylor trial on large TV screens in various communities. He said that the outreach officers also coordinate town hall meetings through traditional leaders in various towns and villages during which they give members of the community an overview of the trial in The Hague. School children and war victims are also targets of the court’s outreach activities, Mr. Fatoma added.
In response to concerns that many people in Freetown had the wrong perceptions about the trial, such as whether the ICC or the Special Court for Sierra Leone was trying Mr. Taylor, Mr. Fatoma said that “The Special Court for Sierra Leone is not able to ensure that every single person in Sierra Leone and Liberia know everything but most people know that the Special Court for Sierra Leone is working, and most people know the differences in Freetown that Charles Taylor is not being tried by the ICC.”
Mr. Fatoma, however, admitted that interest in the Taylor trial has reduced considerably but added that “that is not our fault.” He attributed the reduced interest in the trial to a “lack of education about the rule of law and justice in Sierra Leone.”
“Some people just think that trials should be run in few days. Also, people are biased against Taylor and so they just want the process over with and Taylor sent to jail. Again, as the trial continues, not everyone will continue to sustain the interest,” he added. He did note that there is a need to intensify efforts to get the people interested in the process again and he said that the outreach staff are working in that direction.
“There are new initiatives that we are working on to re-energize the populace about the trial again,” he said.
The Special Court got off to a good start with an effective outreach program especially when other trials were being conducted in Freetown. Outreach, however, is challenging at the best of times. Trying to conduct outreach activities at a moment when the Special Court in Freetown is shutting down its operations, and when the only remaining trial is being held around the other side of the globe, presents even greater challenges for the outreach staff. Not only is the Special Court continuing to struggle for funds and resources to conduct outreach, but finding new and innovative ways to keep people interested and engaged in the proceedings at a time when interest is lagging is a huge test.
Increased funding by donor states for outreach is needed at the Special Court now more than ever – as is continued evidence of the innovation and resourcefulness that has always marked the Special Court’s outreach efforts since its early days. As the first former head of state trial to conclude at an international or hybrid tribunal, it is crucial that people understand both its significance and the process. Eyes need to remain not only on the trial, but on what the Special Court is doing to make the trial accessible to people in the sub-region.