The Butcher of Monrovia Liberian Dictator Taylor Faces Justice for Sierra Leone War

Former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor goes on trial in The Hague next week, charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity during the decade-long civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone.

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RUF (Revolutionary United Front) soldiers fought against the Sierra Leone army for six years. Their main backer is alleged to have been former Liberian dictator Charles Tayor. 1997.
AP

RUF (Revolutionary United Front) soldiers fought against the Sierra Leone army for six years. Their main backer is alleged to have been former Liberian dictator Charles Tayor. 1997.

Alhaji Yussu Yurka, 49, is selling his past. It's about all he has left to sell. In return for 10 sacks of rice or $50 in cash, he provides his account of the worst bloodbath in the history of Africa -- or at least the worst bloodbath anyone in Sierra Leone, a small country on Africa's humid western edge, can remember. It was the massacre in which Yussu Yurka lost both of his arms.

In the poorest country on earth, life is a struggle to survive for an armless man like Yussu Yurka. But 10 sacks of rice or $50 are at least enough to help him and a group of helpless, mutilated victims of Sierra Leone's civil war living on the outskirts of the capital Freetown make it through a few days.

So we give him his $50. "What can we do?" he asks, "if we're lucky we can get a job as a security guard, where you press a button when someone is trying to break in." Yussu Yurka can count himself one of the more fortunate ones. An aid organization has provided him with crude prosthetic arms, steel claws he uses with astonishing dexterity.

The civil war that devastated Sierra Leone for 11 years claimed more than 100,000 lives. Many thousands more -- women, children and fathers of families -- survived the war, but only after losing limbs at the hands of machete-wielding rival rebel groups that terrorized the population.

Sierra Leone has been at peace since 2002. The world's poorest country is now poorer than ever, a nation of misery and suffering. The fetid streets of Freetown are filled with the victims of war, helpless people without arms and former child soldiers that until recently wielded machetes themselves.

This disastrous war just north of the equator was utterly pointless. It was not a war of liberation or a conflict sparked by fanaticism. There was no ethnic strife to explain children being forced to shoot their parents or girls being abducted and forced to work as sex slaves for the rebels. According to Yussu Yurka, and everyone else, only one man was responsible for this war, "and his name is Charles Taylor."

Taylor arrives 20 minutes late. It is 9:20 a.m. on July 3, 2007, and the entire courtroom here in The Hague has been waiting for a man wearing a gray suit and a wine-red silk tie to make his appearance. "Good morning, Mr. Taylor," says the chief justice, visibly annoyed.

But it isn't the well-dressed Mr. Taylor's fault that he is late. Muscular Dutch security officers escort Taylor into the courtroom. The delay is the result of the extraordinary security precautions that were needed to bring Taylor from the nearby Scheveningen Prison to the courtroom in a prison vehicle.

But 20 minutes isn't much for the people of Africa and for the international law experts around the world who have spent years waiting for this day. Taylor was responsible for so much suffering that it doesn't really matter anymore what the defendant now sitting in a comfortable chair in the dock is ultimately sentenced for.

The charges against Taylor in Courtroom 2 at the International Criminal Court in The Hague include war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, sexual enslavement, use of child soldiers, looting and pillaging. Beginning in 1989, Taylor, as the leader of a criminal gang and later as president of Liberia, rained death and terror on his native West Africa. During his presidency, the wave of violence that had gripped Liberia swept across the border to engulf neighboring Sierra Leone.

In Sierra Leone, gangs of thugs looted the country's diamond fields. The stones became the fuel of an ever-expanding war pitting everyone against everyone, and they were used as payment for weapons from old Soviet bloc inventories. Taylor, the spider in the web, raked together a fortune worth billions and eventually fled his burning capital, Monrovia, with suitcases stuffed with dollar bills.

Hardly anyone disputes Taylor's horrific career and its outcome: two nations destroyed and an entire region destabilized. The only problem lies in assigning responsibility to the former president for the catastrophe he triggered in West Africa. Prosecutors now face the challenge of reconstructing the chains of command between lawless rebel groups and the man at the top.

Taylor's trial begins on Jan. 7.
AFP

Taylor's trial begins on Jan. 7.

"Mr. Taylor," says the Ugandan Chief Justice Julia Sebutinde, her voice now decidedly less frosty, "would you please stand up."

The defendant stands up.

"How do you plead to the charges against you?"

"Not guilty, Your Honor."

When he speaks Taylor, 59, sounds like a worn out president, not like the head of a band of killers. Unlike Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian dictator who was also on trial here until he died in his cell in 2006, the well-dressed Liberian with a US college degree knows how to handle himself before this tribunal of international justice. Instead of grandstanding, Taylor has managed to use procedural tricks to bring the proceedings to a standstill again and again.

It was no different on July 3. The court was promptly adjourned after Taylor pleaded innocent. But when his trial continues, on Jan. 7, the judges in The Hague are more likely to get down to business.

The video recordings of Taylor's upcoming trial will be in great demand in Freetown's makeshift movie theaters, little more than shacks along the streets of the Sierra Leone capital. In a city plagued by frequent blackouts, the VCRs used to show the videos from The Hague are run on gasoline generators.

The videos, distributed by the government, of the trial of the butcher of Monrovia in faraway Europe are being shown everywhere in the country. "This trial sends a message to all Africans," says US criminal law expert David Crane, who wrote the indictment against Taylor for the court in The Hague. "The rule of law will prove to be more compelling than the power of guns."

Is the rule of law indeed capable of bringing peace to a country? The lawyers and judges in Courtroom 2 in The Hague hope to prove that it is, and that the sentencing of a tyrant, even for those who can only view it on video, can bring the spirit of law and the culture of justice to a continent worn down by violence. Can justice prevail in this latest trial of a notorious dictator, of the stylish Mr. Taylor, in the same place where it failed against Serbian tyrant Milosevic?

The mere fact that it was possible to file charges against Taylor in 2003, who was still in office at the time, and to issue an international warrant for his arrest and eventually imprison him in the Netherlands is a historic breakthrough in itself. By bringing Taylor to trial, the International Criminal Court has already created a precedent almost as significant as the Allies' Nuremberg Trials against the Nazis at the end of World War II. The Taylor trial sets an example that can only strike fear into the hearts of criminal heads of state the world over, who are suddenly faced with the realization that their office does not protect them from prosecution and punishment for their crimes.

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