The trial of Charles Taylor

The trial of former Liberian head of state Charles Taylor resumes in The Hague on 13 July His indictment – 11 counts of crimes against humanity – was one of the biggest successes for the Special Court for Sierra Leone. But within the country where most of the atrocities were committed during the 11-year civil war the mood is less jubilant. Many people still question the merits of moving the case out of Freetown to the International Criminal Court. Recently, the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) released a report titled ‘From the Taylor Trial to a Lasting Legacy’ which critiques the trial process as well as the consequences of relocating him to The Hague. 

The Special Court’s official standpoint was that trying Taylor in Sierra Leone would pose a security threat for the court, the media, victims and witnesses. But as the report points out, it was a political decision. Most likely his terms of surrender allowed for the trial to take place in a neutral third country. 

The move had a symbolic impact and it was widely discussed in Sierra Leone that the Special Court had compromised people’s ownership of the justice process. One of the main reasons for a hybrid tribunal located in Freetown was that the national justice system was severely incapacitated. So the transfer effectively robbed the local judiciary of an important learning opportunity. 

The court had planned to make the trial proceedings accessible in Sierra Leone through video link, audio reports as well as online streaming on the Special Court website. But lack of bandwidth at the ICC and poor internet speeds in Sierra Leone made streaming almost impossible. The ICTJ report is quite critical of the court’s attempts to broadcast the opening of the trial. An excerpt explains: ‘The prosecutor’s opening statement was supposed to be broadcast live. However, the broadcast at the court premises repeatedly faltered and halted and other problems beset the centres. Eventually, the court resorted to broadcasting coverage on CNN. When the proceedings resumed on 25 June 2007, the broadcast failed. The broadcast failed again during an appearance the following month.’ 

So very few people in Sierra Leone have actually been able watch the Taylor prosecution, an event that would have strengthened their faith in a global justice system. The local media were offered regular briefings, minutes and press clips but it was still difficult to sustain interest. Some local civil society activists were taken to The Hague to observe the trial. But Mohamed Suma, director of the independent watchdog, Sierra Leone Court Monitoring Programme terms this 'justice tourism'.

Many judicial observers in Sierra Leone maintain that the court was merely obsessed with nailing Taylor. One recurring theme here is ‘white man’s justice’ and this stereotype is likely to stick for a while. 

According to staff at the Special Court the technical problems have been addressed. So they should have better luck broadcasting live this time round. But as the report concludes, little can make up for the fact that Taylor is not being tried in the country where he is answerable.

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