Will Charles Taylor ever face justice for crimes in Liberia?
A week after a Special Tribunal for war crimes in Liberia found Liberian President Charles Taylor guilty for aiding war crimes in Sierra Leone, Liberians ask if he will face justice at home.
The guilty verdict handed down last week in the trial against Charles Taylor forÂ committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone was lauded byÂ the international community and human rights groups as a victory for internationalÂ justice.
But many, both inside and outside of Liberia, are questioning when thoseÂ responsible for atrocities committed during the nationâs brutal civil war, among them Taylor,Â will have their day in court. More than 250,000 were killed in the course of the war, which destroyed the nation's infrastructure.
âThe lack of justice for the victims of the Liberian conflict is shocking,â said BrimaÂ Abdulai Sheriff, director of Amnesty International Sierra Leone. âThe government of Liberia must endÂ the reign of impunity by enacting the necessary legislation and acting on its duty toÂ investigate and prosecute alleged perpetrators.â
The Special Court for Sierra Leone in the Hague found Mr. Taylor guilty of aiding andÂ abetting crimes including murder, terrorism, rape, sexual slavery, and mutilationsÂ committed by rebel forces during Sierra Leone's civil war. The 11-year conflict,Â which ended in 2002, killed more than 50,000, and left many traumatized andÂ maimed.Â
Taylorâs defense counsel has 14 days to appeal the case. A sentence is scheduled to be delivered at the end of the month. Experts in international law expect thatÂ his sentence will be less severe because the prosecution was unable to proveÂ allegations that Taylor had command and control over the rebel RevolutionaryÂ United Front.
Counselor Tiawan Gongloe, a human rights lawyer who was severely torturedÂ under Taylor's orders when he criticized the government in 2002, said the verdictÂ was a victory for human rights and sent out a warning message to key players inÂ Liberiaâs civil war that like Taylor, their time too would come.
âHis conviction is the beginning of the end of impunity in Liberia because nowÂ the âbig man syndrome' in Liberia is going to end and no one will feel that he or she isÂ above the law,â Mr. Gongloe says. âPeople will know that whatever happens in the sub-region that there is a day for accountability and this will serve as a deterrent for allÂ other leaders after Taylor.â
But unlike Sierra Leone, which, with the support of the United Nations, establishedÂ a hybrid domestic and international court in 2002 to prosecute key players in itsÂ devastating civil war, the government in Liberia has yet to take action and prosecuteÂ key players in the war.
âLiberia should follow Sierra Leone's example so that Liberian victims can also seeÂ justice done,â says Elise Keppler, a senior counsel with the International JusticeÂ Program at Human Rights Watch.
Like many African nations emerging from war, LiberiaÂ had aÂ Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The final report was released in 2009 and recommended Â that 120Â people be tried for war crimes and 50 people be barred from politics for 30Â years. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf -- who won this year's Nobel Peace Prize for her role in reconciliation in post-war Liberia -- was listed in the latter category for sending moneyÂ to Taylor early on in the war in order to, in her own words, âchallenge the brutalityâÂ of President Doeâs regime.
Liberian civil society activist Aaron Weah says that while there were many problemsÂ with the TRC, the indictment of powerful members of the political establishment, such as Ms. Sirleaf and the controversial ex-warlord Sen. Prince Johnson, has been the main reason the report appears to have been shelved and its moreÂ punitive recommendations ignored.
âThe prospects seem very remote, but it is only because of the prevailing politicalÂ will,â Mr. Weah says. âIf there is a change of regime, the conversation might change andÂ the space could be opened up for prosecution and we could be involved in a newÂ round of investigations.â
But others argue that the recommendations of the TRC were unlikely to beÂ implemented because they were deeply flawed and because the report did not buildÂ up a case as to why certain people should be prosecuted or banned from politics. InÂ 2011 the Supreme Court found the TRCâs recommendations to be unconstitutionalÂ because the commission violated the rights of individuals to due process.
While international rights groups are calling for the Liberian government to act,Â not everyone agrees that prosecutions are the way forward in Liberia, a nation theÂ remains divided along the ethnic lines that defined the war and the rebel factionsÂ that took part in it.
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee, who led a womenâs prayer movementÂ to end the war in 2003 and who is now the head of the Liberian Reconciliation Initiative, argues that prosecutions could fuel ethnic tensions. Liberiaâs peace stillÂ remains fragile and is maintained by the United Nations Mission in Liberia and itsÂ force of 8,000 UN peacekeepers.
âIf you decide to indict Prince and use the retributive kind of justice for prosecution,Â especially in Liberia, you need to think about how you will quell some of the riotsÂ and demonstrations that will come as a result of this,â Gbowee said in an interviewÂ before the verdict. âThe question is, should we allow him to go free because of fearÂ of that? The answer is no â I do not support impunity. But the other question is,Â when? Not now.â
But not everyone agrees with Gbowee. Peterson Sonyah, 36, is a survivor of theÂ St. Peterâs Lutheran Church massacre that claimed over 600 lives, the majority ofÂ them from Gio and Mano ethnic groups, and committed by members of the ArmedÂ Forces of Liberia in 1990, under the leadership of the then-president Samuel K. Doe.Â Sonyah now heads the Liberian Massacre Survivors Association (LIMASA).
Sonyah recounts laying still under a church pew as Doe's men shot people dead or chop them to piecesÂ with cutlasses. His father was hit in the leg and later bled to death. He wants theÂ government to act now.
"There should be prosecutions because maybe some people will think that theyÂ can go back again into the bushes and wage war on the Liberian people,â he says. âIfÂ people face justice they will not go back to what they did again.â
International human rights advocates like Keppler argue that prosecutions will playÂ an important role in Liberia turning a page on its dark history, and establishing faithÂ in the rule of law.
âFrom Human Rights Watchâs perspective, trials, for the gravest crimes and humanÂ rights violations committed are essential to making a serious break from the past,Â giving redress to the victims and the rule of law,â she says.
âWar crimes and crimes against humanity cannot be forgotten and cannotÂ be forgiven, certainly not by those who committed them, or by successor
governments,â says Geoffrey Robertson QC, who was president of the UNâs warÂ crimes court in Sierra Leone and is the author of "Crimes Against Humanity: TheÂ Struggle for Global Justice." Robertson says government support would be necessary if a country such as LiberiaÂ were to initiate prosecutions for war crimes.
âWithout commenting on the present Liberian government, I would say in general itÂ would require a government to ask the United Nations for assistance in establishingÂ an independent tribunal,â says Mr. Robertson. âIt would be a good idea to make thatÂ a hybrid tribunal in which the majority of judges are appointed by the UN and aÂ minority of deputy prosecutors coming from Liberia that would engage the LiberianÂ lawyers and investigators by making sure that the majority of the court wasÂ unbiased and unaffected by the obvious prejudice that would arise from having hadÂ their friends or relatives killed.â
Given the state of Liberiaâs legal system, which often fails to serve justice even inÂ cases involving minor crimes, most agree international legal and technical supportÂ would be required. Counselor Gongloe agrees that international support would beÂ needed but argues that alleged perpetrators should be tried in county courts in the places where they are accused of committing the worstÂ crimes so that victims can see justice done.
But Gongloe argues that civil society and the members of the political establishmentÂ will need to push for prosecutions in Liberia.Â âSierra Leoneans got justice because they wanted justice,â Gongloe said. âThey putÂ justice at the front line in the search for peace. Liberians did not. The majority of the
outspoken people were not advocating for justice.â
Gongloe says this is in part a result of the outcome of the war that saw TaylorÂ become a democratically elected president who was able to influence public opinionÂ through patronage. But Gongloe is optimistic that with Taylor behind bars and his influence declining,Â the push for justice in Liberia will begin.
Get daily or weekly updates from CSMonitor.com delivered to your inbox.Â Sign up today.