With the support of the Open Society Justice Initiative, the Center for Accountability and Rule of Law-Sierra Leone (CARL-SL) and the Fourah Bay College Human Rights Clinic (FBCHRC) conducted a series of outreach events in July 2012 in Freetown, Kenema, Kailahun, Kono, and Makeni to inform the Sierra Leone people about the judgment of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) in the case of The Prosecutor v. Charles Ghankay Taylor. The outreach series consisted of a panel discussion in Freetown at the Fourah Bay College and public discussions in Kenema, Kailahun, Koidu (Kono), and Makeni. These locations were selected for outreach events because the Trial Chamber specifically listed these as the locations of the crimes Taylor aided and abetted or planned. During the public discussions, representatives from CARL-SL and the FBCHRC outlined the trial proceedings and briefly explained the Trial Chamber’s findings on each count and mode of liability. Audience members then had the opportunity to ask questions and give their reactions to Taylor’s conviction and 50-year prison sentence. At the outreach events, CARL-SL and FBCHRC also disseminated a three page summary of the 2,539-page judgment.
Naturally, reactions to the verdict and sentencing judgment were mixed. However, during all of the radio programs and the public discussions, multiple participants expressed satisfaction with Taylor’s conviction, saying that it set a precedent that anyone who perpetuates violence will be held responsible, thus deterring future leaders from committing these crimes.
At the more academically-focused panel discussion in Freetown, the conversation often revolved around the significance of the Taylor judgment to the global fight against impunity and Sierra Leone’s national justice system. Civil society representatives lauded the several contributions of the Taylor trial to international justice, including the precedent that has been set that even a head of state will face justice if he or she commits serious crimes. Students and community members in each location commented that Sierra Leonean political leaders should take note of the Taylor conviction in the run-up to Sierra Leone’s November 2012 general elections because they too will be made to account for their crimes if they use violence as a political tool.
In spite of these strong positive reactions, there are a number of lingering concerns among the general public about whether the Taylor trial and conviction benefits them in any way. During the radio discussion program in Kono, one caller asked, “Will we be able to get our hands and feet back? Will the people of Kono be able to get our diamonds back?” These poignant questions reflect the gap between what the Taylor judgment adds to international criminal justice on a national and global level and what it tangibly offers victims in Sierra Leone in their daily lives.
In many ways, the reactions to the Taylor judgment in a particular location reflected the manner in which the war affected that area. For instance, in Kailahun, where there is still visible destruction from the war, participants questions and comments centered on the issue of reparations and what tangible benefit the Taylor conviction could have on their everyday lives. In explaining that the conviction and sentence had no impact on many members of the community, a widow who lost her husband and father of her children during the war adamantly stated that “if [the Special Court] give[s] Charles Taylor a 50 or 100-year sentence, or even kills him, it will not please us.” Her frustration was visceral as she broke down in tears while explaining the daily livelihood hardships that she and others in her community continue to face. For her, the Taylor conviction does not alleviate her daily suffering. One religious leader in Kailahun who spoke on behalf of his parishioners said that even though they accepted the Taylor verdict, he questioned how peace can be consolidated when all of these livelihood problems exist.
In Kono, where the civilian population was terrorized and some were forced to mine the very diamonds that financed the purchase of arms used against them, one young man asked whether the money that Charles Taylor made from the diamonds in Sierra Leone will eventually come back to Sierra Leoneans. One person asked for Taylor’s bank account to be traced and the money brought to Sierra Leone to help victims, amputees, and people who are HIV positive because of the sexual violence that occurred during the war.
In Kono and Makeni, which were major RUF strongholds during the war, an overwhelming number of participants wanted to know if Charles Taylor, who was in Liberia when the crimes were committed, could be tried and convicted what would be done about the Sierra Leoneans who directly perpetrated crimes against civilians and are still walking around free in their communities. One nursing student in Makeni used an analogy to ask whether Sierra Leoneans who committed crimes during the war and have not faced justice would not commit the same crimes again because they had been able to do it with impunity the first time. He stated that Charles Taylor was like a cancer, and even if the doctor surgically removes the tumor, the cancer may have already spread to other parts of the body, only to rear its ugly head again. The concern of that young man for perpetrators to be brought to book stands in stark contrast to the concerns of ex-combatants themselves. An ex-combatant who is currently a student in Makeni listened carefully to the facilitators’ explanation about the reduction of Taylor’s sentence by six years due to time already served in detention during trial and asked whether the sentence of his “boss Issa [Sesay]” would also be reduced accordingly. In spite of these contrasting concerns, there was no visible tension in the room between ex-combatants and others.
Perhaps the situation of the two students in Makeni, much like all of the reactions expressed during the outreach events, merely demonstrates the varied perspectives of Sierra Leoneans on what justice means to them.
 The author only identifies this participant as an ex-combatant because of the question asked, not because the participant identified himself as an ex-combatant.