International Justice Monitor

A project of the Open Society Justice Initiative

Judgment in the Charles Taylor Trial: Final Chance to Determine Responsibility for the January 1999 Attack on Freetown

When Special Court for Sierra Leone Judges (SCSL) in The Hague delivers their final judgment in the trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor sometime this year, it could be the final chance to determine responsibility for the January 1999 rebel attack on Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown. Taylor is on trial for allegedly supporting Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in Sierra Leone, a rebel group which attacked the country in March 1991, a war that would last for eleven years. 

The January 1999 attack on Freetown occupies huge significance in the history of the conflict in Sierra Leone. For many, this event truly brought the world’s attention to an otherwise forgotten conflict. Pictures on televisions of babies whose arms were amputated by rebel forces while under the protection of their parents showed the world that something serious was happening in that tiny West African nation. The January 1999 invasion also convinced the government of Sierra Leone that a military solution to the conflict was almost impossible. There was a need to negotiate with the rebels, thus leading to the signing of the 1999 Peace Agreement in Lome, Togo. This eventually led to the release of RUF leader Foday Sankoh, who had been incarcerated since 1997.

The scars of this attack exist in Freetown until this day. Amputees still roam the streets of Freetown as beggars, burnt houses still remain, and women still need medical help as a result of being raped by rebel forces.

This year, on January 6, I participated in radio programs to commemorate the events of that fateful day in 1999. Many civilians, including victims of the events of that day called into the radio programs and made contributions. A woman recounted how rebel forces poured petrol and set fire on her son even when she begged them to spare his life. She cried as she recounted her experience. A man called and explained how she lost family members on that day. Another called and spoke about how rebel forces burnt down his house, leaving him homeless. In the streets of Freetown, an elderly amputee wept as he explained how the rebels asked him to lay down his hand before it was chopped off by a rebel young enough to be his grandson.

Sierra Leoneans agree on the nature of the crimes committed on that day, but they cannot seem to agree on who committed these heinous acts.

Eleven years after this attack, debate is still hot among Sierra Leoneans as to who was responsible for the carnage meted out on innocent civilians in Freetown. To some people, the invasion was the work of RUF rebels, to others, it was the work of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), a group of Sierra Leonean soldiers, who in 1997 overthrew the elected government of Sierra Leone and formed a junta government together with RUF rebels. When the AFRC junta was forced out of power by West African peacekeepers in 1998, they retreated to Sierra Leone’s provincial towns. These renegade soldiers, some believe, were the ones who came back to Freetown on that fateful day.

There is still a school of thought with the belief that this invasion was a combined attack by the AFRC and RUF as part of a joint criminal enterprise to destabilize and take control of the territory of Sierra Leone. An influential voice among this group is the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) of the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

During the trials at the SCSL, Prosecutors have led evidence in support their position. Through several witnesses, first in the AFRC and RUF trials in Freetown, and reechoed in the Taylor trial in The Hague, Prosecutors have maintained that this operation was a combined AFRC-RUF affair, with support from that man now on trial in The Hague, Charles Taylor.

However, two sets of judges in the AFRC and RUF trials ruled in 2007 and 2008 respectively that the 1999 attack on Freetown was an AFRC affair and that the RUF had no involvement in it. The judges who presided over the AFRC trial now do the same in the Taylor trial. Despite these decisions, prosecutors have not given up. With renewed vigor, they have led witnesses who have testified in the Taylor trial that this was a combined AFRC-RUF attack as part of a joint criminal enterprise in which Taylor played a vital role. They allege that Taylor helped plan and finance this operation with supplies of arms and ammunition to RUF rebels. Proof that the RUF were involved in this attack could have a significant impact on the Taylor trial as an indirect way of linking Taylor to the atrocities of January 1999.  Such is the importance put on this evidence that the Prosecution had as their final witness against Taylor, a 59 year old resident of Freetown, whose two arms were amputated in Freetown in January 1999.

Defense lawyers for Taylor on their part have made all efforts to put this attack at the door step of the AFRC. When former signal commander for the RUF, Mohamed B. Kabbah testified as a prosecution witness against Taylor in September 2008, defense counsel Courtenay Griffiths subjected him to such rigorous cross-examination that he was forced to say that the RUF were not involved in the attack on Freetown. Kabbah had, however, earlier said that Taylor called RUF commander Sam Bockarie to congratulate the RUF for invading Freetown. After Kabbah’s cross-examination, Taylor gave. Griffiths an open handshake in court, a sign of saying “well done.” 

Defense lawyers also brought in convicted former interim leader of the RUF, Issa Hassan Sesay, now serving a 52 year jail term for his role in the Sierra Leone conflict, to testify on behalf of Taylor. In his testimony, Sesay said that the RUF was not involved in the January 1999 invasion of Freetown. His comment in this regard prompted huge condemnation from Sierra Leoneans.        

As things stand, even with the judgments in the AFRC and RUF, in which it was determined that the 1999 attack on Freetown was an AFRC, not an RUF affair, the debate still remains among many Sierra Leoneans. If the Judges in the Taylor trial become swayed by new evidence about those events some 11 years ago, they will be at liberty to change their previous decision and apportion responsibility to the RUF, and by extension Taylor, if it is proved that he was involved in a joint criminal enterprise with the rebels. If Prosecutors have shown no new evidence that adds to those presented in the AFRC and RUF cases, then the Judges might just stick to their original judgment – that it was an AFRC affair.

This all means that as far as responsibility for the 1999 attack on Freetown is concerned, the jury is still out, and the Taylor trial might well be our very last chance to determine responsibility for those events, events that residents of Freetown will not forget in a hurry.

11 Comments
  1. Perhaps it would help that the debate is framed properly. Those who entered said over the BBC it was the AFRC and the RUF. They were a combined force. The only one big commander who would not get along with the RUF was Saj Musa..and by the time Freetown invasion happen he was dead. Of course in prior trials each side tried to blame the other. But rememeber also,,,,in RUF trials there was no Bockarie. And in this trial he is the lynch between all of the commanders and Taylor…so of course this trial showing the bigger picture and the true responsibility for this murder of Freetown. The pros finally brought out the truth about this terrible event that the world largely ignored and should be saluted.

  2. Folks,

    This is nothing short of a revolutionary. MAN OH MAN. This thing is just getting horribly bad folks for the prosecutors and their supporters. They can not show the joint criminal enterprise agreement from all the way back to the training camp in North Africa Libya between this innocent man, President Taylor, and the RUF. The prosecutors again tried by bringing in “BLOOD DIAMONDS”, their own witness, Super Model, Naomi Campbell dashed their last hope. They are even trying harder to show that the RUF was part of the invasion of Freetown, even though, the judges in both the AFRC and RUF trial squarely said and with absolute ontological certitude, that it was the AFRC operation alone and not a combined AFRC and RUF operation. Even the prosecution own witness in this FAKE CASE against Liberia beloved president, said, the invasion of Freetown was the Sierra Leone Armed Forces (AFRC) alone and not a joint AFRC-RUF operation. Let’s just assume for a second that the RUF and the AFRC combined to invade Freetown, what that has to do with President Taylor of LIberia? RUF was a rebel group who had their own Command and Control Structure. Taylor was never in their Command and Control Structure; he did not gave them orders and they did not take orders from him. so what Taylor has to do with the invasion of Freetown? You guys just finding all kinds of bogus reason to nail this innocent man.

    FAKE CASE.

    Folks, what more will they bring? There is no case. I know it wouldn’t take too long before somebody somewhere calls it a day and say, there is no case;therefore, let this man go back to his homeland.

  3. “However, two sets of judges in the AFRC and RUF trials ruled in 2007 and 2008 respectively that the 1999 attack on Freetown was an AFRC affair and that the RUF had no involvement in it. ”

    “When former signal commander for the RUF, Mohamed B. Kabbah testified as a prosecution witness against Taylor in September 2008, defense counsel Courtenay Griffiths subjected him to such rigorous cross-examination that he was forced to say that the RUF were not involved in the attack on Freetown.”

  4. If the judges rule that the 1999 attack on Freetown was an AFRC affair and that the RUF had no involvement in it, I do not see them changing that judgement because the prosecution said Mr. Taylor was some how involed. Why did the prosecution did not connect Mr. Taylor during the other two trial.

  5. Maybe because the other two trials didnt have bockarie on trial. Why would you need to go beyond gullit if only gullit on trial. The evidence of Bockarie/RUf involvement was overwhelming and anyone from sierra leone will tell you about the wjhole offensive against the nation in late 1998 leading up to it and the invasion were all connected. You think that is just a coincidence. Plus 5-6 radio operators from all different angles all have bockarie giving orders to Gullit. This is a slam dunk and CT (thanks to his son and peacemaking subordinate Bockarie) has finally been exposed for his role in this terrible event thanks to this pros. Kudos…they can throw all the smoke and mirrors they want, the truth has come out.

    • Bundu,
      Bockarie/RUF involvement was on trial in the RUF case. Still the judges concluded that the RUF was not involved in the 1999 attack on Freetown.

  6. unless this is a smart way of eating useless money from us, canada, etc, this nonsensical show should be put to an end! Taylor said he would return home before heading to nigeria in 2003. Let him go and get rid of mrs. Johnson! All she’s doing is opening door to africom to get into the heart of africa and start civil conflicts while stealing natural resources! Let africom in through liberia was the reason 500000+ liberians died, 100,000+ more hiv positive, etc. Johnson let em in to become president and sold taylor to nigeria who also sold him to us for not doing what he did not do – let us use liberia as a base for our military mission in the continent.

  7. Please try hard you judges to come out with final verdict this 2011 year. Taylor is a human being and not animal. He needs freedom. He had been there for so long and his family and country men and women are missing him so much. He is not the only person that have ever err in the world, if he did.

    I am James Flomo from Liberia

  8. so called charls taylor,need to be sentence for life imprisonment.because he commiitted the most dangrious atrocity.in sierra leone.
    an example need to be set on him,this will serves as a lesson to others.

  9. sombody says,chars Taylor is a human being,YES,he is.but also a animal and A beast. he need’s to be treated like a lower animals.he is not a human being,
    he committed crime against humanity,he will never see light on the surface of the world.he Must pay the PRICE.