September 26, 2013 portents to bear no greater consequence for another person as it probably does for Charles Taylor, the 65-year-old former president of Liberia, who will receive a judgment in his appeal against his conviction and 50-year jail sentence for war crimes by The Hague-based Special Court for Sierra Leone.
The question on everyone’s mind is:
Does Taylor have any chance of winning his appeal and walking a free man?
If I were you, I wouldn’t answer with a resounding no and here’s why…
Last April, when Richard Lussick, the court’s presiding judge, delivered the verdict against Taylor, who was on trial for fueling Sierra Leone’s atrocious civil war, I was in Liberia working as a news editor for one of the country’s leading newspapers, and like everyone else, after a trial lasting over three years, I eagerly anticipated the ruling.
For Taylor’s supporters, theirs was an anticipation mixed with subdued euphoria. Most believed Taylor would be acquitted because, according to them, the prosecution’s case was based on “circumstantial evidence.” There was even talk among them that their “Papay,” as they affectionately called Taylor, would return home and they would pour out into the streets in jubilation to welcome him.
But that was not to be. Taylor was found guilty for “aiding and abetting” the commission of war crimes during Sierra Leone’s civil carnage, which became notorious for the widespread terror tactic of amputations employed by the
Revolutionary United Front against civilians.
After the verdict was announced, there was a palpable feeling of perplexed despondency and even anger among Taylor’s supporters on the streets of Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. They maintained that Taylor was a victim of an imperialistic system parading as international justice, which applied selective and double-standard justice against Africans.
I too was dumbfounded by the court’s ruling, though for a different reason.
After calling 94 witnesses, including supermodel Naomi Campbell, who received “blood diamonds” from Taylor when the two met in South Africa, and submitting 782 exhibits into evidence, the prosecution had failed to convince the court of the crux of their case: that Taylor had “effective command and control” over the RUF and that he was involved in a “joint criminal enterprise” with them to commit murder, rape and other crimes of war enumerated in the indictment.
And, Taylor’s mostly youthful and uneducated supporters’ claims that the case against their Papay was based on circumstantial evidence now seemed to hold some credence.
Was Taylor Tried for the Wrong War?
It also wouldn’t take long for a highly credible legal authority to join the fray.
On the same day of the judgment, news trickled in that Justice El Hadji Malick Sow, an alternate trial judge, had registered his dissension to Taylor’s guilty verdict under a cloud of controversy.
“I disagree with the findings and conclusions of the other judges, because for me, under any mode of liability, under any accepted standard of proof, the guilt of the accused from the evidence provided in this trial is not proved beyond reasonable doubt by the prosecution,” Justice Sow said in open court as his microphone was abruptly switched off and the other judges scurried off the bench.
In a subsequent interview with New African Magazine, Justice Sow said the reason for his dissension was because a major part of the prosecution’s evidence was taken from Liberia, where Taylor was leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, a rebel army accused by Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission of committing the greatest number of war atrocities reported by victims.
“The only question was just one – how to prove the link between Charles Taylor and the crimes committed in Sierra Leone, and not in Liberia,” Justice Sow maintained.
Taylor’s lawyers subsequently filed an appeal calling his guilty verdict a “miscarriage of justice” saying the court had failed to apply the “correct definition of aiding and abetting” in its judgment against Taylor.
Could Taylor Win His Freedom?
Conspiratorial thoughts of imperialistic powers leaning on the court to keep Taylor under lock and key aside, Taylor’s chances of getting out of jail may be far from nil, if one considers a recent legal precedent established by another international court.
On February 28, the Appeals Chambers of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia overturned the conviction of Momčilo Perišić, a former Serbian army general, who was earlier found guilty of aiding and abetting the commission of war crimes during that country’s civil war.
The court ruled that it had not found evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that Perišić “specifically directed” assistance to the Bosnian Serb Army to commit war crimes.
Therefore, if the appeals judges in Taylor’s trial were to apply a similar measure of guilt that the evidence must show beyond a reasonable doubt that Taylor “specifically directed” assistance to the RUF for the commission of war crimes, one has to wonder whether the legal scales could not also bend in Taylor’s favor.
Resigning the Liberian presidency on August 11, 2003, following international and military pressure, Taylor waxed prophetically: “God willing, I will be back.”
Well, maybe his supporters might get to give their Papay a triumphant welcome home after all.