Two former members of the Sierra Leonean rebel group which wreaked havoc during the country’s brutal 11-year civil war told judges this week that they had only themselves to blame for the atrocities committed during the conflict – Charles Taylor had no responsibility for the crimes.
Mr. Taylor is on trial for allegedly supporting and controlling the Sierra Leonean rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), while he was leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) rebel group as well as when he became president of Liberia in 1997. Mr. Taylor has denied all allegations against him. This week during his defense case, two Sierra Leonean nationals and former RUF members, Charles Ngebeh and Fayia Musa, told Special Court for Sierra Leone judges that the allegations against Mr. Taylor are false.
On Monday, Mr. Ngebeh said the only time Mr. Taylor supported the RUF was in 1991 when the conflict started in Sierra Leone. Mr. Taylor himself has admitted to providing support for the RUF in 1991. The former president told the court that his support to the RUF was needed to fend off attacks on his positions in Liberia from United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) rebels. ULIMO was being assisted by the Sierra Leonean government – it made sense, Mr. Taylor had testified, to support the RUF rebels who were fighting to dislodge the Sierra Leonean government. 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 on Monday, Mr. Ngebeh said that the Sierra Leonean rebels themselves 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 were 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.
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 on Monday 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 on Monday, Mr. Ngebeh refuted prosecution assertions that the RUF were involved in organized mining activities in Sierra Leone’s diamond rich towns. The witness explained that mining activities in RUF controlled territory were undertaken mainly by individual RUF members and that the individuals only handed very big diamonds to the RUF as a government since those were hard to carry.
“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],” the witness said.
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.
On Tuesday, Mr. Ngebeh re-echoed his position that the atrocities committed in Sierra Leone during the war should not be attributed to Charles Taylor as he had no role to play in them.
“All the atrocities committed by the RUF are not the concerns of Mr. Taylor. They did happen but it doesn’t concern Mr. Taylor. Mr. Taylor has no hands in it,” the witness said.
As he responded to questions under cross-examination from lead prosecutor Brenda Hollis, Mr. Ngebeh told the court that those who were responsible for crimes committed by the RUF in Sierra Leone have already been punished by the Special Court for Sierra Leone in Freetown.
In his words, “all the atrocities you have explained about, is the cause why Issa and others are in prison today but Taylor is not responsible for that. Mr. Taylor is not responsible for it.”
In 2009, three RUF commanders, Issa Sesay, Morris Kallon and Augustine Gbao were sentenced to terms of imprisonment by the Special Court for Sierra Leone in Freetown after being convicted for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed by them in their individual capacities as well as those committed by their subordinates under the doctrine of command responsibility. Prosecutors now say that these RUF commanders took their own orders from Mr. Taylor. Like Mr. Taylor, all defense witnesses have said that these charges are false.
As Mr. Ngebeh concluded his testimony on Tuesday, the other Sierra Leonean witness Mr. Musa who served as Agricultural Officer and then Spokesperson for the RUF started his testimony in Mr. Taylor’s defense. Mr. Musa, who is recorded in the report of Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as being one of the original founders of the RUF, testified about the circumstances surrounding the start of the conflict in Sierra Leone, Mr. Sankoh’s leadership in the RUF and his arrest in Nigeria in 1997, thus paving the way for Sam Bockarie (alias Mosquito) to become the RUF’s interim leader. He explained that as leader of the RUF, Mr. Bockarie, whom he termed “the devil” because of his actions, issued all orders to the RUF. He denied suggestions that it was Mr. Taylor who issued orders to the RUF.
On Wednesday, Mr. Musa corroborated earlier defense accounts that Mr. Taylor’s NPFL and the RUF rebels in Sierra Leone had permanent fallout in 1992 after the RUF had received some support from Mr. Taylor in 1991. He explained that the fall-out involved a bloody battle between the two groups which ended in the deaths of several fighters on both sides. He said that the cordial relationship which existed between Mr. Taylor and Mr. Sankoh was completely terminated after this battle. Mr. Sankoh, the witness said, vowed never to go to Liberia again.
“Foday Sankoh vowed never to go to Liberia again, according to him because he felt disappointed by everything he told us. According to him, he had relied a lot on Charles Taylor for support, but that support did not come, then Liberians were coming again to disturb us,” Mr. Musa told the court on Wednesday.
“So he said he’ll never, never go to Liberia again. When he told us we should use our own resources to run the campaign, he is appealing to all the Sierra Leoneans on the ground to make sure that we, we abide by that,” he said.
Mr. Musa also denied allegations that the RUF intended to terrorize the civilian population of Sierra Leone (One of the counts in the indictment against Mr. Taylor is that he actively supported, or failed to stop, the RUF’s activities designed to terrorize the civilian population of Sierra Leone. Three RUF commanders have already been convicted on this charge in a previous trial by Special Court for Sierra Leone.) Mr. Taylor has denied helping the RUF in any way. The former president’s defense counsel, Courtenay Griffiths, sought to get the witness’s response to allegations of the RUF terrorizing the civilian population.
“Now, was it the intention of the RUF to terrorize the civilian population of Sierra Leone,” Mr. Griffiths asked the witness.
As the witness laughed, Mr. Griffiths added that “that’s the allegation in this case. It is suggested that the RUF is a terrorist organization, so help me, was that your intention?”
“It was not the intention of the RUF at all to terrorize any Sierra Leonean,” Mr. Musa responded. “The intention of the RUF, we who were in it, the intention of the RUF was to create a liberation, total liberation from poverty, illiteracy and disease, as it is in other parts of the world.”
“The management of the war itself may have been poor, a lot of mistakes were made, but that was not the intention of the RUF,” he added.
On Thursday, Mr. Musa testified that the conflict in Sierra Leone was prolonged because RUF leader Mr. Sankoh was stubborn and he did not want peace in the West African country. This, he said, caused West African leaders to turn their backs on him. Mr. Musa explained that after the RUF signed a peace agreement with the government of Sierra Leone in November 1996 (dubbed the Abidjan Peace Accord), members of the international community prevailed upon Mr. Sankoh to respect the terms of the peace agreement but he refused. Because of his intransigence, West African leaders — specifically in Ivory Coast and Nigeria — became frustrated with him, the witness said.
Responding to questions about how West African leaders responded to Mr. Sankoh’s sincerity towards the peace process in Sierra Leone, Mr. Musa said that “In fact that is why the Ivorians decided to abandon him because they had known that, they had known very clearly that he was not prepared to respect the accord at all,”
“As for Abacha, he knew that he [Mr. Sankoh] had embarrassed him. He saw that as an embarrassment because he gave his word to him for support, he saw it as foolishness to have encouraged him and politically dangerous also,” he added.
As Mr. Taylor’s defense lawyers concluded Mr. Musa’s direct-examination on Friday, prosecutors made an application to the judges that the witness’s cross-examination be postponed, citing reasons that Mr. Musa had testified about events which were not contained in his written statements disclosed by defense lawyers. Prosecution counsel, Nicholas Koumjian, told the judges that the prosecution will suffer undue and irreparable damage if the cross-examination of the witness was not postponed. The defense objected to the prosecution’s application.
After hearing arguments from both sides, the presiding judge of the Special Court for Sierra Leone’s Chamber, Justice Julia Sebutinde, ruled that while the witness summary disclosed by the defense to the prosecution was insufficient, such insufficiency was not gross. Justice Sebutinde also stated that prosecutors had not demonstrated any undue or irreparable prejudice that they would suffer if the defense did not disclose additional information or statements about the witness’s testimony.
Reading the ruling of the Chamber, Justice Sebutinde said that “the prosecution motion for disclosure of the witness statement is therefore denied.”
She added that “However the Trial Chamber does agree with the prosecution that the witness’s evidence-in-chief did span over areas not specifically mentioned in the summary and to this extent, the summary could be considered as insufficient although not grossly so. As mentioned in our prior rulings, the proper remedy in that case is to allow the prosecution some time to prepare its cross-examination in relation to those areas not contained in the summary.”
The witness’ cross-examination will start on Monday.