Africans Look for Justice in Taylor Trial


By Christo Johnson

Independent Online
May 31, 2007

Victims and protagonists of two of Africa's most brutal civil wars will be crying for justice when Liberia's former warlord-president Charles Taylor appears in a European courtroom next week to face war crimes charges.

Some clamour for his conviction as the alleged mastermind of conflicts fuelled by "blood diamonds" that tore through Sierra Leone and Liberia for over a decade, sucking in neighbouring states and killing more than a quarter of a million people. But former comrades question whether Taylor, who faces 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity related to Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 conflict, can receive a fair trial at a UN-backed Special Court sitting far from Africa in The Hague.

Taylor has already pleaded not guilty to multiple charges of terrorism, murder, rape, sexual slavery and use of child soldiers, arising from his alleged support for Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in the Sierra Leone war. "This man called Charles Taylor is a monster," said Sierra Leonean Adama Turay, whose son and daughter both had hands amputated by RUF rebels. The rebels' drugged-up child soldiers cut off the legs, arms, lips and ears of civilians, becoming a symbol of the brutality of the intertwined West African wars.

Turay and other war victims welcome Taylor's prosecution as an essential step to bring closure to a horror-filled episode in Sierra Leone's history as the country rated the world's second poorest by the UN in 2006 prepares for elections in August.

Similar anger can be found in Taylor's own country Liberia, although he does not face trial there. "I am very happy to see this man is at that court. He needs to be killed rather than fed each day," said Monrovia resident Rosetta Smith, who said her husband was beaten to death by members of an Anti-Terrorist Unit serving the then president. "Whatever a man soweth, so shall he reap .... Men acting on his order killed many people ... That should tell you how wicked that man was," she said.

Authorities had argued that moving Taylor's trial to The Hague would avoid stoking unrest in Sierra Leone and Liberia. But some of his former supporters say the former African leader has little hope of obtaining justice in a European court. "I am not happy that our former president is undergoing disgrace in white man country," said General Butterfly, a former rebel officer who fought for Taylor before his 1997 election. "Have you seen a cow return from a slaughter house? ... Mr Taylor is a guilty man already. If he comes out not guilty, then we will jubilate," he told Reuters in Monrovia.

Both supporters and detractors of Taylor wondered whether the millions of dollars spent on the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone so far might not be better used to help the country's arduous reconstruction from the war. They also complained about the sluggish progress of its cases. "This Special Court is taking too long - they should spend the money on the poor instead," said Alhassan Samei, a 23 year-old unemployed man in Sierra Leone. "Instead of building hospitals and schools, they built us a Special Court," said university student Hakeem Mansaray.

Five years after the court for Sierra Leone was created, several of the main indictees, besides Taylor, are either missing or dead. This raises the risk that legal delays may once again thwart justice, as in the case of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who died in jail before a verdict was reached at his marathon war crimes trial.

Prosecutors hope to wind up Taylor's trial within 18 months. "If the court makes the mistake of releasing that man, he will become a wounded cobra," said Rosetta Smith.

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