After a week-long recess the Charles Taylor trial restarted today, with a defense witness testifying that crimes committed in Sierra Leone during its brutal 11-year long civil conflict were perpetrated by its own rebel forces — not by rebel forces loyal to the former Liberian president.
Charles Ngebeh, a Sierra Leonean national and former member of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF)–a Sierra Leonean rebel group which Mr. Taylor is alleged to have supported during the country’s civil conflict – today insisted that allegations of Mr. Taylor’s support for the RUF are not true. The exception, he said, was in 1991 when the conflict started in Sierra Leone and Mr. Taylor provided some support to the rebel forces in his neighboring country. Mr. Taylor himself has admitted to providing support for the RUF in 1991, saying that such support was necessary because United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) rebels were attacking his positions in Liberia with support from the government of Sierra Leone, which the RUF rebels at that time were fighting to dislodge. This support stopped in 1992, according to Mr. Taylor, after the Liberian rebels fell out with their RUF counterparts. Corroborating Mr. Taylor’s evidence, Mr. Ngebeh has testified that Liberian rebels in Sierra Leone indeed returned to Liberia after falling out with the RUF in an operation titled “Top 20, Top 40, and Top Final.”
As he responded to questions from prosecutors under cross-examination today, Mr. Ngebeh said that the Sierra Leonean rebels themselves, of which he was a member, were responsible for atrocities committed in Sierra Leone from 1992 to 1996. He said that Mr. Taylor’s forces had nothing to do with the atrocities committed in Sierra Leone.
“From 92-96 the atrocities that were going on was terrible, caused by us the Sierra Leoneans, let’s forget about Mr. Taylor’s issue. That was terrible. You won’t compare that at the time that Mr. Taylor was assisting the RUF in 1991. Mr. Taylor’s NPFL was not killing, the killing that was going on was caused by us the Sierra Leoneans,” Mr. Ngebeh told the court today.
Mr. Taylor’s indictment covers crimes committed by the RUF in Sierra Leone from 1996 to the end of the conflict in 2002. Prosecutors have led evidence to establish that in addition to supporting the RUF within the period covered by the indictment, Mr. Taylor also supported the RUF prior to 1996. This, prosecutors hope, will convince the judges that the Joint Criminal Enterprise (JCE) in which Mr. Taylor and the RUF were allegedly involved, was a continuous process, spanning a period from the early days of the conflict to its conclusion in 2002. Mr. Taylor has denied these allegations. Now in his defense, the former president’s witnesses — such as Mr. Ngebeh — are telling the judges that apart from 1991, Mr. Taylor did not have any relationship with the RUF, even prior to 1996 as alleged by prosecutors. It is in this light that Mr. Ngebeh today sought to exonerate the former president from crimes committed in Sierra Leone from 1992 to 1996. These crimes, the witness said were committed by Sierra Leonean rebels.
Also in his testimony today, the witness told the court that mining activities conducted in RUF-controlled territory in Sierra Leone during the war were undertaken predominantly by individual RUF rebels, not by the RUF as an organization. Referring to the RUF as a government, the witness explained that when individuals mined diamonds, they would only hand the very big diamonds to the government (RUF) because big diamonds were hard to handle by individuals.
Responding to questions about the ownership of diamonds in RUF controlled areas, the witness explained that “after the coup [1997 coup in Sierra Leone], diamonds no longer were government property. Everybody took his. In spite of the fact that we had centralized areas were we mined for different authorities, but it was not a government property. Everybody had rights to carry it, except if you take a big one that you were not able to be in control of, you would handover that to the government [RUF].”
Prosecutors have alleged that the RUF were involved in organized mining in Sierra Leone propelled by forced civilian labor. They have also alleged that all diamonds mined in the RUF mines were taken to Mr. Taylor in Liberia. The former president, it is alleged, supplied the RUF with arms and ammunition in return. Mr. Taylor has denied these allegations. Mr. Ngebeh’s testimony appears to suggest that the mining activities in RUF controlled territory were not as organized as prosecutors say.
In another development, it was announced today that Justice Teresa Doherty, one of the Trial Chamber judges, will be absent from court for a few days due to illness. The trial will continue in her absence.
Mr. Ngebeh’s testimony continues tomorrow.