Special Court for Sierra Leone Is the Case Against Charles Taylor Falling Apart?

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor has been on trial in The Hague for the last three years. The International Criminal Court accuses him of mass murder, rape and acts of terror. But the most promising prospect of using international law to punish a former dictator is threatening to fail.


By and Jan Puhl

The court is not spared anything, including this cross-examination on the subject of cannibalism.

Question: "How do you prepare a human being for a pot?" The witness: "We lay you down, slit your throat und butcher you and throw your head away, your intestines."

This is more than the court wants to hear. The audience turns away in disgust.

"With pepper and salt," the witness adds.

These are scenes from a nightmare that never seems to end. The trial of Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, before the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague has been underway for more than three years -- without palpable results.

Crimes against humanity, mass murder, rape, mutilation, the blame for the massacres that took place during the civil war that raged in neighboring Sierra Leone between 1991 and 2002: the charges against the African politician are as massive as the prosecutors' ambition to force a murderous head of state to atone for his crimes for the first time in history. But the more unbearable the details of this bloody African conflict become in the neon-lit courtroom, the more agonizing is the game of guilt and atonement, and the more untouchable this former president, in his silver-gray tie, gray suit and white pocket handkerchief, becomes.

Nothing seems to stick to this defendant. Cannibalism? Taylor feigns disgust. What does he have to do with such atrocities, he asks?

More than 90 witnesses have already testified. The International Criminal Court in The Hague is currently in the process of hearing the last of the oral evidence, and the man who was almost certain of taking his place in history as the " Butcher of Monrovia" appears to be emerging as a winner, at least for now.

In Freetown, the devastated capital of Sierra Leone, where the ravages of the civil war continue to shape the misery of everyday life, and where the country's war crimes tribunal has its headquarters between NATO barbed fire fences, mutilated victims follow the Internet broadcasts from faraway The Hague with trepidation. Musa Mewa, a journalist, senses that a catastrophe is unfolding in Europe. If Taylor is not punished for the suffering that the people in his native West Africa still endure today, it will be "the end of justice," says Mewa.

Gangsters of World Politics

Peace through justice: Using a formula established in 1945 during the Nuremberg trials of the surviving perpetrators of Nazi atrocities, international courts have been trying for almost 20 years to make the worst gangsters of world politics, tyrants and war criminals alike, accountable for their crimes.

In 2006, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia failed in its attempt to convict former Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. The defendant died of a heart attack before the court could fully process the completely overloaded indictment against him. The prospects of bringing Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, before the International Criminal Court are also slim. Although the court has issued an arrest warrant against the tyrant, he remains untouchable in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, where he continues his dictatorial rule.

Now the Taylor trial, seen as the most promising of such cases to date, threatens to fall apart in The Hague. In the worst case, the Taylor trial could reveal to the world that it's impossible to measure national leaders by the yardstick of the law.

Stephen Rapp, the chief prosecutor in the Taylor trial until a year ago and now an advisor in the United States State Department, must already regret the bold statement he made after the defense had submitted its evidence: "It has been demonstrated that it is possible to prosecute a former chief of state in a trial that is fair and efficient, even where the indictment covers wide-ranging crimes."

Rapp's self-praise was "overstated and entirely premature," experts at the University of California, Berkeley, who have monitored and analyzed the trial for years, said recently. In a study, the international law experts accuse the judges and prosecutors in the case of making serious mistakes. They characterize the often insensitive treatment of victims who were willing to testify as "surprising and disappointing" and the prosecutors' financial payments to key witnesses as irritating.

According to the Berkeley study, the "excessive delay" of the apparently overwhelmed court in reaching important interim decisions can be attributed to the "apparent violation of the defendant's fair trial rights." The defendant as a victim of an overly zealous judiciary? The gray-haired man, wearing cufflinks in the shape of the African continent, can lean back and relax.

The prosecution's biggest challenge has not been to provide the court with evidence of the horrors of the civil war in Sierra Leone. No one doubts that the 1990s uprising by the "Revolutionary United Front" (RUF), under its bloodthirsty leader Foday Sankoh, claimed far more than 100,000 lives. The death squads that mowed down entire villages for the RUF referred to their operation as "No Living Thing." The gruesome details are collected in 42,000 pages of evidentiary material. They include accounts of children butchering their own parents on Sankoh's orders, mass rapes and ritual bloodbaths.

Amputees Living in Misery

The rebels chopped off the arms, legs or all the limbs of thousands of people. A population of amputees lives a life of misery in the slums of Freetown today. In a degrading procedure, some were even forced to parade their mutilations before the court in The Hague. Mothers broke down in tears when called upon to describe to the court how their children were murdered.

RUF ringleaders were convicted and imprisoned for these crimes in other trials in Freetown. Only the most important of the trials was moved to The Hague, for security reasons.

It is unsettling enough for the victims, after being put through the ordeals of traveling from the broken end of the world to the high-tech courtroom in the Netherlands, to arrive there and be told that the suffering they endured is not the central issue in this trial. In The Hague, far away from the scene of the crime, the unspeakable things that were done to the witnesses at home are reshaped into the cold, hard facts the legal experts call the "crime base."

In The Hague, all of this is nothing more than background noise for the "linkage," or establishment of a legal connection between the distant catastrophe and the ultimate responsibility being attributed to a polite man sitting in the corner who sometimes flips through Newsweek when he's bored.

Charles Taylor, who has been held at the tribunal's prison in The Hague's Scheveningen district for the last four years, was allegedly the mastermind of the carnage in neighboring Sierra Leone. After seizing power in Liberia with no less brutal means in 1996 and having himself elected president, he allegedly fueled the civil war in Sierra Leone with arms shipments. For years, politicians and legal experts alike were convinced all of this was done out of pure greed. Taylor, whose reputation as a swindler had already preceded him as a young man, was allegedly trying to gain control over the hugely productive diamond mines in Sierra Leone.

Taylor's lust for diamonds is the link prosecutors have tried to establish. So far, however, they have not managed to offer convincing proof of this crime story in public court hearings. The most important witness, former RUF commandant Foday Sankoh, one of Taylor's comrades from the wild days, died of a stroke years ago.

His successor in the RUF, Issa Sesay, testified as a witness for the defense in The Hague. Despite days of cross-examination Sesay, who has already been sentenced to a 52-year prison term and therefore has nothing to lose, continued to insist that Taylor had had nothing to do with the arms shipments to the RUF.

Now much will depend on whether the court believes the man telling the cannibal stories.

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