Former Liberian president Charles Taylor goes on trial today for allegedly orchestrating unspeakable atrocities in Sierra Leone’s bloody civil war.
He is the first African leader to face an international tribunal – a landmark event that human rights activists say proves that nobody on the continent is above the law.
Prosecutors say that in return for diamonds illegally mined in Sierra Leone, Taylor armed, funded and controlled rebels who murdered, raped and mutilated civilians before looting and torching their villages in a campaign of terror aimed at destabilising the government in Freetown.
Taylor, 59, who has denied 11 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment if convicted. His trial at The Hague in the Netherlands, is expected to last 18 months.
The atrocities in Sierra Leone’s 1991-2002 civil war are well-documented; fighters – often children drugged and turned into merciless killers at brutal rebel training camps – killed thousands of men, women and children and mutilated more by hacking off hands and limbs with axes and machetes. Women were raped and abducted to become sex slaves.
Many victims had the initials of rebel groups carved into their skin with burning-hot bayonets. Children were sent out with burlap bags to hack off and collect limbs and were punished if the bags were not full when they returned.
Today prosecutors will deliver an opening statement – expected to last four hours – outlining to the three-judge panel how they intend to link Taylor to the crimes. Judges rejected a request from Taylor to make a statement today.
The trial will then adjourn until June 25 to give defence lawyers more time to prepare.
When witnesses begin testifying, survivors, including amputees, will take the stand along with former allies from Taylor’s inner sanctum who will be critical to proving he controlled rebels responsible for atrocities in another country.
Many will testify anonymously for fears of reprisals from Taylor supporters, and some will be put in witness protection schemes after giving evidence.
“Prosecutors will have to prove that the linkage exists between Taylor’s alleged participation in the crimes and the crimes themselves,” said Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch. “There is no question these kinds of cases are difficult, they are complex.”
That complexity was best underscored by the ill-fated case against former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, whose genocide trial dragged on for four years at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal before being aborted weeks from a verdict when Milosevic died in his cell.
Despite the difficulties, the Taylor trial has been hailed as a watershed for war-torn western Africa and its people.
“The beginning of this important trial truly does show them that the rule of law is more important than the rule of the gun,” said David Crane, a former chief prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
“It’s a time in the history of Africa that the leaders ... go on notice that they just cannot destroy their own people for whatever purpose.”
But supporters, including his daughter Charen Taylor, who grew up in the US and dropped out of college to help organise his defence, say Taylor has been unfairly targeted.
“He’s taking the blame for what others did,” she said.