A defense witness for Charles Taylor this week denied knowledge of the former president’s alleged involvement in sending Liberian traditional herbalists – or “juju” men –to Sierra Leone to perform ceremonies for rebel forces to protect them from enemy bullets. The witness also told Special Court for Sierra Leone judges that paramilitary units were established as part of the Liberian security apparatus without the knowledge of former Liberian president.
John Vincent, a Liberian national who served as training commandant for Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel group and later as Colonel in the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) under Mr. Taylor’s presidency this week, responded to claims by a prosecution witness about Mr. Taylor’s role in relation to the use of “juju” men by RUF rebels in Sierra Leone. In 2008, former RUF radio operator Alice Pyne said she was present when the Liberian herbalists arrived in Sierra Leone and that she was part of the RUF rebels who participated in the ceremony. Ms. Pyne also said she had spoken with one of the herbalists who had told her they were sent by Mr. Taylor from Liberia.
Mr. Vincent said he had heard of the RUF using herbalists to protect their fighters from bullets, but did not know or hear about the group Ms. Pyne spoke of.
“More specifically Mr. Vincent, did you ever hear of Charles Taylor sending herbalists to the RUF to use to protect their fighters?” defense counsel for Mr. Taylor, Morris Anyah asked the witness.
“No,” the witness said, emphatically.
On Monday, Mr. Vincent recounted his days as a trainee for the RUF at Camp Nama in Liberia. He said RUF leader Foday Sankoh only told the RUF rebels his real name when they entered Sierra Leone in March 1991. At Camp Nama, he only knew the RUF leader as Pa Morlai or God Father.
“It would make sense, doesn’t it to you, that Foday Sankoh, being supported by Charles Taylor in NPFL territory, that Charles Taylor would want to hide his support for the Sierra Leone dissident from the government of Sierra Leone for as long as possible. That’s why Foday Sankoh didn’t use his name……isn’t that true?” prosecution counsel Nicholas Koumjian under cross-examination asked the witness.
“I did not have such an idea,” the witness responded.
Mr. Taylor who is on trial in The Hague for allegedly providing support to RUF rebels is presenting his defense through his witnesses. His witnesses seek to discredit prosecution evidence against him, deny allegations that he knew of the operations of the RUF in Sierra Leone and to convince the judges that even in Liberia, Mr. Taylor could not have known of everything that obtained inside the country’s security aparatus. Prosecutors claim that Mr. Taylor had full control over the RUF and the Liberian security aparatus, presenting evidence that the former president gave a blind eye to the operations of his security forces. His defense witnesses now say otherwise.
It is in this light that Mr. Vincent on Thursday told the judges that units could be created in the Liberian military without Mr. Taylor’s knowledge — even though he was the president of the country at that time.
The issue emerged as Mr. Vincent appeared to contradict testimony of Mr. Taylor’s about the existence of a Special Operation Division (SOD) as a unit in the Liberia National Police. (In his 2009 testimony, Mr. Taylor told the court that no unit called the SOD existed in the Liberian police force. In today’s testimony, Mr. Vincent said that the SOD did exist as a unit in the police force). Mr. Vincent added, however, that the former president may not have known about the existence or establishment of the SOD. The witness also told the court that together with his colleagues in the Liberian army, they created the Jungle Fire Quick Reaction Force in the AFL without Mr. Taylor’s knowledge.
Mr. Anyah sought clarification about how these special units could be created without the knowledge of the president.
“Now, in relation to Jungle Fire Quick Reaction Force, in your opinion, when you and others gave yourselves that name, is that something that can be the concern of the president of Liberia?” Mr. Anyah asked the witness.
“No, it cannot be the concern, no,” the witness responded.
“And why do you say it cannot be the concern?” Mr. Anyah asked further.
“Well, it would only be the concern of the president if we were doing something contrary to his administration, but as long as it was in the interest of the government that we bring ourselves together to fight the common enemy, I did not see any problem with it,” Mr. Vincent said.
Earlier on Wednesday, Mr. Vincent agreed with prosecutors that RUF rebels used terror to keep themselves under control during Sierra Leone’s brutal 11-year conflict. He told judges that he was terrified when the rebels killed their own colleagues, adding that it was out of such fear that he quit the rebel movement in Sierra Leone to join Mr. Taylor’s Liberian armed forces.
The witness told the court that members of the group sometimes killed their own colleagues under mysterious circumstances. Mr. Vincent further said that sometimes the RUF rebels killed their own colleagues while fighting with enemy forces. This, he said, caused some RUF rebels to live in constant fear. In response to prosecution questions from Mr. Koumjian about the use of terror by RUF rebels, the witness explained how he was also afraid for his life while serving in the RUF.
“Yes, I was afraid,” the witness said.
“So within the organization of the RUF, terror was used to keep control, isn’t that right?” prosecution lawyer, Mr. Koumjian, asked.
“Yes, as you rightly said, people felt they could do bad things, at least to keep them in their command position or make them powerful, I don’t know what their reasons were,” Mr. Vincent said.
Mr. Koumjian asked whether the witness was afraid “that the way that you would be killed is you’ll be going to the front line, someone will shoot you in the back and then they’ll say ‘oh John Vincent died in fighting with LURD’, correct?”
“Yes,” the witness said.
Mr. Taylor is charged with crimes including terrorizing the civilian population of Sierra Leone as part of his alleged responsibility for RUF rebels. In soliciting answers on how RUF rebels used terror even among themselves, prosecutors are trying to establish that crimes committed by the RUF were a common practice and a consistent pattern. Prosecutors argue that Mr. Taylor was in a position of command and effective control of the rebels, he knew the rebels were committing crimes, and he failed to prevent or punish those crimes. Mr. Taylor has denied the prosecution allegations, telling the court that he never supported the RUF.
In talking about the reign of terror in the RUF, Mr. Vincent told the court on Thursday that because of such fear, he left the RUF and returned to Liberia where he was recruited as Colonel into the AFL under Mr. Taylor’s presidency.
Mr. Koumjian drew the court’s attention to Mr. Taylor’s letter which he wrote to the Sierra Leone government under President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah in 1999, promising to take action against Sierra Leonean dissidents escaping to Liberia in line with a non-aggression treaty that exists between Sierra Leone and Liberia. Mr. Koumjian tried to get answers from the witness whether he, as a dissident, was arrested when he returned to Liberia after fighting with the RUF in Sierra Leone.
“No, I was not arrested,” the witness said.
“Mr. Witness, in this letter to President Kabbah when Charles Taylor promised to act immediately to arrest and keep in custody these dissidents from Sierra Leone which was a member of that treaty, that was a promise he didn’t keep, correct?” Mr. Koumjian asked the witness.
“Yes, according to the document, the promise was not kept because I have seen the document here,” Mr. Vincent responded.
Prosecutors have argued that in addition to providing support for the RUF rebels in Sierra Leone, Mr. Taylor also provided safe haven for them when they relocated to Liberia. Mr. Taylor has denied providing any such safe haven for Sierra Leone rebels, telling the judges that his aim was to help Sierra Leone attain peace.
As Mr. Vincent concluded his testimony on Thursday, defense witness Charles Ngebeh — whose cross-examination was suspended on March 24, 2010, based on a request by prosecutors — took the witness stand again.
Mr. Ngebeh, a Sierra Leonean national, told the court that before he joined the Sierra Leonean rebel force, the RUF, the rebels forced him and other civilians to walk for one week to a town called Pedembu in the Kailahun District of Sierra Leone. He and the other civilians were then forced to carry looted goods on foot from Pedembu to a town called Foya, in Liberia, he said. In doing so, Mr. Ngebeh asserted that the rebels used forced labor in Sierra Leone. (Among other charges, Mr. Taylor is responding to allegations that he is responsible for the rebels’ use of forced labor in Sierra Leone. Prosecutors say that Mr. Taylor knew or had reason to know that the RUF used forced labor in Sierra Leone but continued to support them through the supply of arms and ammunition. Mr. Taylor has denied the allegations against him.)
Brenda Hollis, Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, conducted the witness’ cross-examination and asked the witness about how the rebels forced them to walk from Pendembu to Foya in Liberia.
“They used me as manpower,” the witness said.
“And when you say you were used as manpower, what do you mean, how were you used?” Ms. Hollis asked the witness.
“They told us to assist them carry their things that they had gotten from Golahun, that’s what I mean by manpower,” the witness said.
Asked to explain “what kind of things” he carried for the rebels, the witness said that “they had looted food, rice — I carried rice.”
He added that the rice was taken by the rebels from the military and the civilians in Sierra Leone.
Mr. Taylor’s trial will resume on April 12, 2010 as the court started its Easter recess on Friday.