Sierra Leone Special Court Offers Lessons for Prosecuting Highest-Level Suspects
Taylor’s trial shows that credible prosecutions of the highest-level suspects for the gravest crimes are achievable. It was a long road and there was room for improvement, yet the proceedings were relatively well-managed, more than 100 witnesses testified, and expert defense counsel strengthened the proceedings.
(Brussels) – The trial of the former Liberian President Charles Taylor for war crimes and crimes against humanity during Sierra Leone’s armed conflict was a largely well-run proceeding, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The trial benefitted from a high-quality defense, sound handling of witnesses, and dynamic outreach to communities affected by the crimes. At the same time, Human Rights Watch’s analysis identified areas in which practice should be improved for future trials of the highest-level suspects before domestic, international, and hybrid war crimes tribunals.
The 55-page report, “Even a ‘Big Man’ Must Face Justice: Lessons from the Trial of Charles Taylor,” analyzes the practice and impact of Taylor’s trial by the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone. The report examines the conduct of the trial, including issues related to efficiency, fairness, and witnesses and sources. It also examines the court’s efforts to make its proceedings accessible to communities most affected by the crimes, and perceptions and initial impact of the trial in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
“Taylor’s trial shows that credible prosecutions of the highest-level suspects for the gravest crimes are achievable,”said Annie Gell, international justice fellow at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report. “It was a long road and there was room for improvement, yet the proceedings were relatively well-managed, more than 100 witnesses testified, and expert defense counsel strengthened the proceedings.”
The report is based on research in Sierra Leone, Liberia, The Hague, London, and New York from September 2011 to June 2012.
The Taylor trial took place against a backdrop of criticism and concern over the feasibility of trying national leaders before international or hybrid war crimes courts following the 2002-2006 trial of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. That trial was notable for its sometimes-chaotic atmosphere and Milosevic’s death before a judgment was issued.
The Taylor trial largely avoided major disruptions that could have marred the proceedings, Human Rights Watch said. Taylor’s decision to be represented by counsel appears to have contributed to the generally respectful and organized tenor of the courtroom.
Human Rights Watch urged tribunals handling such trials in the future to take measures to enhance trial management. Notably, the judges in Taylor’s trial adopted practices that sought to improve efficiency but sometimes contributed to delays, such as the ambitious courtroom calendar and inflexibility on parties meeting some deadlines. Other practices – such as the Trial Chamber’s non-interventionist approach to witness testimony and the admission of evidence of the underlying crimes – lengthened the proceedings.
More active court efforts to address defense concerns prior to the trial’s start could have encouraged smoother proceedings and improved fairness, Human Rights Watch said. Increased transparency and stronger guidelines for the prosecution’s provision of funds to potential witnesses and sources during its investigation could also have been helpful.
Trials like Taylor’s are significant beyond the events in the courtroom, Human Rights Watch said. One crucial objective is to convey a sense of accountability to communities most affected by the crimes so that justice has local resonance and becomes meaningful.
“The court’s dynamic outreach activities brought the trial to local communities in Sierra Leone and Liberia and helped to explain the proceedings,” Gell said. “Trial impact is hard to judge but Sierra Leoneans and Liberians expressed greater expectations for justice and interest in promoting the rule of law in their countries.”
Increased expectations for justice have also resulted in some frustration, though, over the absence of wider accountability in Sierra Leone and Liberia, Human Rights Watch said. A domestic amnesty for crimes committed during Sierra Leone’s conflict remains in effect and Liberia has yet to investigate and prosecute serious crimes committed during its armed conflict.
“Domestic efforts to investigate serious crimes committed in Sierra Leone and Liberia beyond the Special Court’s mandate are essential for more complete justice,” Gell said. “The Sierra Leonean and Liberian governments should take concrete steps to pursue justice for serious crimes committed in their countries.”
Taylor was sworn in as president of Liberia on August 2, 1997, after leading an eight-year insurgency against the Liberian government. Taylor’s presidency, which lasted until 2003, was characterized by widespread human rights abuses in Liberia. Taylor’s forces also participated in armed conflicts and cross-border raids in neighboring Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire, where they committed numerous abuses.
On March 7, 2003, the Special Court for Sierra Leone indicted Taylor under seal for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law during Sierra Leone’s armed conflict.
Taylor’s repression in Liberia fueled a rebellion to unseat him. Following rebel incursions into Monrovia, the Liberian capital, and the unsealing of Taylor’s indictment by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Taylor stepped down as president, in August 2003. He was offered safe haven in Nigeria, where he stayed until his surrender to the Special Court.
Taylor was transferred to the custody of the Special Court on March 29, 2006. Because of concerns over regional stability in West Africa, the trial was moved from Freetown, the Sierra Leonean capital, to the Netherlands. The trial began on June 4, 2007, but was adjourned the same day when Taylor dismissed his legal team. New counsel was assigned the following month and proceedings resumed in January 2008. The trial phase officially closed on March 11, 2011.
On April 26, 2012, Taylor became the first former head of state since the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders after World War II to face a verdict before an international or hybrid international-national court on charges of serious crimes committed in violation of international law.
Taylor was found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt on all 11 counts of the indictment on the theory that he aided and abetted the commission of the crimes and was therefore individually criminally responsible for them. He was also found guilty of planning attacks on the diamond-rich Kono district in eastern Sierra Leone and the town of Makeni, the economic center of northern Sierra Leone, in late 1998, and an attack on Freetown in early 1999, during which war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed.
On May 18, the court released its full written judgment, totaling over 2,500 pages. On May 30, Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in prison. Both prosecution and defense indicated they plan to appeal. Given the judgment’s length and the complexity of the case, the court estimates the appeals process will take at least 15 months, with an appeal judgment expected no earlier than September 2013.