After nearly three-and-a-half years, Trial Chamber II at the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) has heard evidence from the Prosecution and Defense about whether Taylor bears the greatest responsibility for the crimes committed during Sierra Leone’s eleven year conflict. After much anticipation, the Defense finally presented its closing arguments today, marking the beginning of the end of the trial of Charles Taylor.
Closing arguments allow the parties to highlight the most important aspects of their cases to the judges. A month ago, the Prosecution presented its closing arguments. Today, Taylor’s Defense team presented its closing arguments. The closing arguments will continue for two hours tomorrow morning, and on Friday the parties have the opportunity to respond to the arguments raised in oral arguments. Then, finally, the judges can retire to deliberate the evidence before them and reach a final judgment on Taylor’s guilt or innocence.
Prosecution Oral Response to Defense Final Trial Brief
The hearings this morning began with the Prosecution’s oral response to the Defense final trial brief. Instead of submitting a written response, as the Defense will later this week, the Prosecution opted to respond orally. The Prosecution requested the oral presentation due to limitations in staff size and the short period they had to review the final brief.
Defense Mischaracterization of Evidence
The Prosecution began by going through different sections of the Defense brief and arguing against the Defense characterization of evidence. The Prosecution focused on key aspects of the trial, including the initial RUF invasion into Sierra Leone in March 1991, Operation Stop Elections, Ibrahim Bah’s relationship with the RUF, and arms and ammunition shipments to the RUF. In general, the Prosecution argued that the Defense mischaracterized and excluded important aspects of the evidence and therefore drew incorrect conclusions about the evidence. The Prosecution also defended its own evidence where the Defense final trial brief suggested it was inconsistent.
Political Motives and Selective Prosecution
The Prosecution addressed Defense assertions that the trial was politically motivated and that Taylor is the victim of selective prosecution before the SCSL. Selective prosecution, where one person is prosecuted even though others in a similar situation could have also been prosecuted, is generally not allowed in criminal trials as it is seen as showing discrimination against the accused.
The Defense argued that the fact that former SCSL Prosecutor David Crane shared Taylor’s sealed indictment with US government officials two months before it became public showed that Taylor was selectively prosecuted.
The Prosecution, however, contended that this practice is normal before international courts. Citing various cases at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the Prosecution argued that because international courts have no police power, they must share sealed indictments with governments so that governments can go and arrest suspects. Otherwise, the Prosecution submitted, there would be no possible way to arrest a suspect. The Prosecution argued that sharing the sealed indictment was completely within the discretion and power of the Prosecutor, and defended Crane’s actions as necessary and completely proper.
The Prosecution also argued against Defense contentions that Taylor was selectively prosecuted instead of Blaise Compaoré, president of Burkina Faso, or Muammar Gaddafi, the leader of Libya, who also allegedly assisted the RUF. The Prosecution drew a distinction between these leaders and Charles Taylor, noting that while they may have assisted the RUF, Taylor’s situation is different because he created, armed and led the RUF as a proxy army that fought on his behalf.
Taylor’s Role as Peacemaker
Counsel for the Prosecution also countered Taylor’s arguments that his meetings with the RUF were the result of his position as a peacemaker. The Prosecution stated that there is no question that Taylor tried to publically represent himself as a peacemaker, but pointed out holes in the evidence that suggest it was merely a façade.
For example, the Prosecution noted the lack of documentary or other evidence about Taylor’s meetings with RUF leader Sam Bockarie in the fall of 1998. Even though Taylor had documents and photos of other similar meetings, there was suspiciously no similar evidence of these meetings, the Prosecution noted. This is because, according to the Prosecution, these were clandestine meetings planning the war in Sierra Leone, about supplying the RUF with ammunition, attacking Kono, and then moving on to attack Freetown.
The Prosecution will have another opportunity to address the Court on Friday, when it delivers its rebuttal to the Defense oral arguments.
Defense Closing Arguments
Lead Defense Counsel Courtenay Griffiths delivered the first part of the Defense closing arguments today. The Defense arguments will continue tomorrow morning, with submissions made by Terry Munyard, and then both the Prosecution and Defense will have the opportunity to make rebuttal arguments on Friday. Key aspects of the closing argument are described below.
Politically Motivated Selective Prosecution
Griffiths began with a discussion of the contentious US government cables released by Wikileaks, arguing that these cables demonstrate that Taylor has been subjected to selective prosecution by the SCSL. Introducing these cables into evidence was the subject of litigation in the Taylor trial earlier this year, and was one of the reasons the Defense filed its final trial brief twenty days late.
The Defense further pointed to the political nature of the trial by suggesting that the US government had given Prosecutor Crane a special fund from which he was able to pay witnesses dishonestly for their testimony. Griffiths noted that the Defense had never been given a similar fund, and that the Prosecution had never come clean about where the money came from or how it was used. The issue of witness payments has been raised repeatedly in trials at the SCSL and has been of major significance in the Taylor trial. The Prosecution will have another opportunity to response to these Defense allegations on Friday.
The “Golden Thread”
The Prosecution has alleged that Taylor, RUF leader Foday Sankoh, and others had developed a joint criminal plan in Libya to destabilize the West African region and provide each other with mutual assistance in their respective struggles. This, the Defense said, was the “golden thread” of the case.
As Griffiths moved through various phases of the case in his submissions, he would return to the “golden thread,” pose questions challenging its truth, and ask whether the evidence could answer his questions and support the Prosecution allegations. The Defense suggested that unless the answers to these questions could be found in the evidence, no reasonable trier of fact could conclude that the Prosecution had proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Strength of Documentary Evidence, Weakness of Linkage Evidence
Griffiths focused his submissions on what he claimed was the strength of the documentary evidence exonerating Taylor from the charges he faces.
Griffiths generally tried to raise doubts about the Prosecution’s linkage evidence. Through this evidence, the Prosecution has tried to link Taylor to the RUF and the AFRC, groups that directly committed crimes in Sierra Leone. The Prosecution claims this evidence shows beyond a reasonable doubt that Taylor is most responsible for the crimes committed in Sierra Leone. The Prosecution has alleged that the RUF was Taylor’s proxy force, which he used to gain political control over Sierra Leone in order to exploit its mineral resources.
Today, repeating Taylor’s complete denial of these allegations, Griffiths claimed, “we have never denied that serious crimes were committed in Sierra Leone.” However, the Defense said, “those crimes were committed solely by the RUF, AFRC, or […] the CDF.”
Early Stages of the Sierra Leone Conflict
Griffiths addressed the early alliance between the RUF and the NPFL, when Taylor admits he provided limited support to the RUF so that they could help protect his NPFL forces from ULIMO. However, the Defense has consistently argued that this alliance lasted little more than a year and ended on bad terms in June 1992.
Today, the Defense pointed to specific documentary evidence suggesting that the support was limited, including a letter sent by RUF leader Foday Sankoh to Taylor in May 1992. The letter raises serious doubts about the Prosecution allegations, Griffiths submitted.
In the letter, Sankoh requests increased assistance from Taylor. The Defense noted that Sankoh repeatedly refers to “his” (Sankoh’s) struggle to free “his” (Sankoh’s) people. The Defense asked why, if Taylor was Sankoh’s boss and they were working together (as the Prosecution alleges), Sankoh would have referred to the struggle as “his,” and not “theirs” or Taylor’s. Moreover, the Defense argued that in the letter Sankoh was “begging” Taylor for support.
Griffiths argued, “He shouldn’t be begging, it’s part of the plan,” and went on to ask, “If Taylor’s got [the supplies] and it’s a part of the plan, why is he not providing [Sankoh] with adequate supplies? Given the joint objective [of gaining political control of Sierra Leone to control its natural resources], why hasn’t Taylor given him the ability to do that as quickly and effectively as possible?”
In June 192, due to discord between the NPFL forces and the RUF forces working together in Sierra Leone, Taylor withdrew his forces at the request of RUF leader Foday Sankoh. The Defense submitted that this withdrawal of support created a breach between Taylor and Sankoh that never healed. After this breach, Sankoh was forced to resort to jungle warfare, and survive on weapons captured from ECOMOG or received through trade with ULIMO.
Griffiths argued that Sankoh was terribly bitter about Taylor’s withdrawal of support in 1992 and remained bitter. The Defense submitted that the evidence proves that any joint criminal enterprise that might have been formed in Libya ended in June 1992. After June 1992 and until the Lomé peace negotiations in August 1999, there is no evidence of Sankoh and Taylor meeting, the Defense suggested. Griffiths claimed that the evidence about radio contact between the two is based on lies.
RUF’s Independent Arms Brokering
Griffiths also discussed two other letters as further evidence of the lack of contact between Taylor and Sankoh during this period. The two letters, written in 1996, dealt with a request to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to fund an arms purchase for the RUF. The Defense contended that the letters, which do not mention Taylor, show that the RUF was acting independently of Taylor and that Sankoh had resources other than Taylor to obtain supplies for the war.
Nine to eleven months later, the Defense noted, a shipment of arms arrived in Magburaka. The Defense claimed this shipment was engineered independently by Sankoh without the assistance of or collaboration with Charles Taylor.
The Defense also suggested that the evidence demonstrates that only small amounts of arms were “trickling” over the border from Liberia. He further argued that there were only two major arms shipments, the Magburaka shipment and the December 1998 shipment.
Griffiths discussed the Magburaka arms shipment in detail, pointing out what the Defense considers gross inconsistencies in the evidence on the shipment. Griffiths noted contradictory statements about how the shipment was paid for, who went to pick it up, when it arrived, and what it included. The Defense suggested that, although some inconsistencies could be expected in testimony about events from so long ago, the extent of the inconsistencies regarding this shipment were too great.
“When evidence is replete with inconsistencies and contradictions, there is only one thing to do with it: throw it in the bin. That is what we suggest the Court do with this bit of evidence: Get rid of it. We suggest it’s garbage,” Griffiths said. According to Griffiths, Defense witness and SCSL convict Issa Sesay had provided the most accurate version of events around this shipment.
The Defense suggested that the documents they highlighted provide a useful roadmap to the truth. Unless answers can be found to the questions raised by these documents, no tribunal could be satisfied that there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt to Taylor’s guilt.
Griffiths concluded by stating, “A criminal trial is not a beauty contest. We are not asking this court to like Charles Taylor.” However, Griffiths insisted, regardless of how the media has painted Charles Taylor, he deserves a fair trial by an independent court. If the court adopts the independent, rational and unemotional approach Taylor deserves, the Defense submitted that there was only one possible verdict: not guilty.