Charles Taylor Will Remain in Prison in the UK

Nearly three years after his original conviction by the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), litigation continues in the Charles Taylor case. On January 30, 2015, the Residual Court for Sierra Leone (RSCSL) denied a motion by Taylor to terminate the enforcement of his sentence in the United Kingdom (UK) and for his transfer to Rwanda.  That decision was not made public until March 25. Taylor, the former president of Liberia, will continue to serve the remainder of his 50-year sentence in the UK.

On April 26, 2012, SCSL judges unanimously found Taylor guilty of 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and serious violations of international humanitarian law committed from November 1996 to January 2002 during the course of Sierra Leone’s civil war. He was subsequently sentenced to 50 years imprisonment on May 30, 2012. His conviction and sentence were both upheld on appeal on September 26, 2013, and three weeks later he was transferred to a maximum security prison in Durham, UK.

The defense submitted a motion to the RSCSL challenging Taylor’s incarceration in the UK in June 2014. The RSCSL, which was established in 2012, is responsible for the ongoing legal obligations of the SCSL. These obligations include supervision of prison sentences, witness protection, support and maintenance of court archives, and assistance to national prosecutions. It took over these functions at the conclusion of the SCSL mandate in December 2013.

In their motion, Christopher Gosnell and John Jones, QC, Taylor’s defense lawyers, argued that the United Kingdom violated his international human rights when the government denied his wife and children visas to visit. Specifically citing international standards of detention in UN resolutions, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and UK law, the defense said that Taylor’s right to a family life has been violated, arguing that “[o]ne of the most basic conditions of humane detention is that a prisoner be allowed to have contact with family members while in custody.”

Detaining Taylor “unnecessarily far” from his home presents other difficulties for his family to visit, the defense motion stated. Taylor’s wife and three daughters live in Liberia, and the defense claimed that the financial burden of traveling to the UK for visitation would have the “unavoidable consequence” that he will receive few, if any, visits from immediate family members.

In addition, the defense submitted that other international criminal tribunals have sentenced convicts to serve prison sentences in their “continent of origin.” Every person convicted at the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda have served their prison sentences in Europe or Africa, respectively. Thus, Taylor has been “singled out” for different treatment, argued the defense.

In order to end the alleged violation to Taylor’s rights, the defense requested that RSCSL terminate the enforcement of his UK prison sentence and transfer him to Rwanda. Currently, Rwanda holds all other persons who have been convicted by the SCSL. In addition, the defense argued that Taylor would be in a safer environment and would not have to be segregated from other prisoners if transferred. Taylor is presently segregated from the general prison population in the UK due to threats against his life. His defense lawyers contend that it is not “humane” to isolate Taylor from the general population “indefinitely” when there is a reasonable alternative.

Prosecutor Brenda Hollis filed a response asking the president of the RSCSL to deny the defense request for removal from prison in the UK. Among other reasons to deny the request, the prosecution claimed that a transfer to Rwanda would “increase possibilities available to Prisoner Taylor to undermine peace, security and public order in Liberia and the West African sub-region.”  These are the same concerns that led to Taylor’s trial being moved from the seat of the court in Freetown, Sierra Leone to The Hague, the Netherlands in 2006.

Regarding the financial burden of visitation for Taylor’s family, the prosecutor noted that no proof has been provided to support the argument that the cost of accommodation would be prohibitive in the UK as opposed to Rwanda.  In addition, Taylor had numerous visitors, including family members, who travelled to The Hague while he was in detention during his trial. The costs of those visits were covered either by Taylor or his supporters, argued the prosecutor, and no evidence has been presented that the same cannot happen in the UK.

The prosecutor also responded that Taylor’s detention in a location far away from his family, does not constitute per se actionable interference with family life. Only in “exceptional circumstances” would such detention be considered a violation of the right to family life. Even if interference was found, argued the prosecutor, enforcement of Taylor’s sentence in the UK is consistent with public interest concerns of national security and the prevention of disorder or crime, which would justify such interference.

Furthermore, the prosecutor also requested that the defense motion be denied because Taylor already made similar submissions to the SCSL regarding his preference of location to serve his prison sentence. There is no new information presented in the defense motion, contended the prosecutor, and similar motions on the same subject should be denied unless the defense makes a “sufficient showing” of why a review is justified.

In its unanimous decision, trial chamber judges at the RSCSL rejected the defense motion in the strongest of terms, noting that “Taylor has no justification for demanding to be treated the same way as other convicts from Africa. Taylor’s case is an exceptional one.” The judges went on to recount the “tremendous suffering and loss of life” that resulted from the crimes Taylor was convicted of, including gang rapes, amputations, and the impact on boys who were turned into child soldiers.

The trial chamber found no violation of the right to family, noting its agreement with European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) decisions that held the ECHR does not grant prisoners the right to decide where they will be detained. In addition, visas were denied to Taylor’s family because of failure to provide all required information in the application. Taylor’s wife could have appealed the decision, but there is no evidence she did, noted the judges. Therefore, judges found no interference with Taylor’s right to family life by UK authorities.

Regarding Taylor’s isolation in the prison’s health care unit, away from the general prison population, the judges also found no violation of his rights. It is the responsibility of national prison authorities to ensure the security of prisoners, and, citing the ECtHR, said “it is not for the Court to examine the validity of the assessment carried out by the domestic authorities.” The judges also found that the defense argument that Taylor would remain in relative isolation “indefinitely” speculative. Thus, no inhuman or degrading treatment could be found.

“During Taylor’s trial, he always blamed the West, mainly the United States and the UK for being responsible for his predicament, so one would expect his continued objection to being incarcerated outside Africa,” said Alpha Sesay, a Sierra Leonean lawyer who monitored Taylor’s trial on behalf of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

“But for Sierra Leoneans, many of whom still blame him for the unspeakable crimes committed during the country’s civil conflict, there is no sympathy for Taylor. They are in agreement with the judges that he must serve his time in the UK,” Sesay added.

Charles Taylor’s son, Chuckie, who was the head of his father’s Anti-Terrorist Unit, is also in prison in the United States for crimes of torture committed in Liberia.


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