Archive for June, 2012

On Wednesday, May 30th, trial chamber II of the Special Court for Sierra Leone sentenced Charles Taylor, the first sitting head of state indicted for war crimes in history, to a prison sentence of 50 years. From the very beginning it was clear that Taylor could not expect any leniency. The presiding judge, Justice Lussick from Samoa, drew heavily on the lore of horror stories from the civil war in Sierra Leone. By way of introduction he told the story of a witness who had carried a bag with chopped off heads from which the blood was dripping only to realize that she had carried the heads of her children. He did not omit to invoke amputees, raped girls, ‘children raped of childhood’ and a traumatized society in order to justify the lengthy prison sentence. The judges confirmed their finding that Taylor participated in the planning of the rebel attack on Freetown in January 1999, infamously known as ‘Operation No Living Thing’. They did not find any mitigating circumstances and instead found a number of aggravating factors such as the abuse of his position as head of state to ‘fuel the war in Sierra Leone’, according to the sentencing judgement. When the length of the sentence was announced Taylor did not show any emotion playing the role of the statesman until the end.

Unsurprisingly Brenda Hollis, the court’s chief prosecutor, was in agreement with the judgement although it fell 30 years short of the 80 years the prosecution had recommended. She hailed the sentencing as an important milestone in the global fight against impunity. This was disputed by Courtenay Griffiths, lead defence counsel, who refused to admit utter defeat and insisted on achievements of the defence such as the judge’s decision to enter not guilty verdicts on joint criminal enterprise and command responsibility but rather on aiding and abetting and planning the attack on Freetown in January 1999.

Griffiths failed to address an apparent contradiction in the defence strategy. From the outset the defence maintained that the trial against Taylor served the political agenda of the US and the UK. Taylor himself stated that he never ‘stood a chance’ and the defence saw their worst fears confirmed when the judges handed down 50 years. This raises the question whether the defence regretted to have done such a good job in defending Charles Taylor as they could be seen to legitimize a fundamentally flawed criminal trial they themselves criticized for being political in nature.

This assessment, however, was not shared by Morris Anyah, who will act as lead defence counsel in the appeals procedure. According to him, the trial chamber’s judgement is affected by flawed witness testimony and numerous errors that are ‘systemic and affect the quality of the judgement’. Mr Anyah was confident that the defence will succeed in convincing the court’s appeals chamber of this and that the case is ‘not a closed case’. Looking at the record of the Special Court’s Appeals Chamber it is difficult to share his optimism.

Whether the draconian punishment of Charles Taylor will actually contribute to deterrence of future crimes or a sense of closure in Sierra Leone and Liberia is open to debate. Public debates in both countries but in particular in Liberia suggest a much more contradictory picture than the one painted by those who hail the judgement against Taylor as an important achievement in the global fight against impunity. But what is the point of punishing Taylor anyway? Maybe it is asked too much for any criminal court to contribute to laudable but chronically ill-defined and abstract objectives such as national reconciliation, closure or healing of collective trauma. Whether the punishment of Taylor will really deter others is also hotly debated and findings from research on deterrence in national jurisdictions are not encouraging. This might become clearer in the coming years as more and more politicians and military leaders will face trial before international criminal tribunals. In any case, most of them will be Africans.

Gerhard Anders, Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh

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