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The final judgement in the trial of Charles Taylor

By Simon Meisenberg


The trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor moved the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) into the limelight of international criminal justice for the last half decade. Without any doubt, the presence of a former Head of State in the dock drew international attention to the smallest of the ad hoc international criminal courts. The Appeals Chamber of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) has now announced that it will render the appeal judgment in the case of Charles Taylor on 26 September 2013 at 11.00 a.m. CET. Taylor, who is in his sixties, was found guilty by the trial panel and sentenced to 50 years of imprisonment.

Given the importance of the Taylor case, the forthcoming issue of the Journal of International Criminal Justice contains a special symposium on the Taylor Trial Judgment and the future of the Residual Special Court. The symposium, edited by Laurel Baig and myself, features articles by Kai Ambos and Ousman Njikam on “Charles Taylor’s Criminal Responsibility,” Kevin Jon Heller on “The Taylor Sentencing Judgment,” Fidelma Donlon on the “Transition of Responsibilities from the Special Court to the Residual Special Court for Sierra Leone,” and Kirsten Keith on “Deconstructing Terrorism as a War Crime.”

The Taylor trial is the first completed criminal appeals process judging a former Head of State in modern international criminal law. There has been much debate about whether the SCSL was truly the first international criminal tribunal to have tried a head of state, pointing to the conviction of Karl Dönitz at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, who was the Head of State of the Nazi German Reich for about 20 days before Germany’s capitulation. But as the IMT did not have any appeal process, let’s simply give the credit to the SCSL of being the first ever to have accomplished such an historical task. The magnitude of this accomplishment is illustrated both by how long it has taken for the international community to fully try a former head of state and the practical challenges encountered by other courts, such as the incomplete Milosevic trial before the ICTY or the failure to arrest of Bashir for trial at the ICC. From a legal perspective, however, the SCSL should not be judged simply by such an historic achievement, but rather by the soundness of its legal and factual findings.

A daily news chalk board in Monrovia, Liberia. Photo by Lieutenant Colonel Terry VandenDolder, U.S. Africa Command. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

A daily news chalk board in Monrovia, Liberia. Photo by Lieutenant Colonel Terry VandenDolder, U.S. Africa Command. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Achievements of the SCSL

Looking back at the SCSL’s activities since mid-2002, when the first investigations started, it is obvious that bringing Charles Taylor to trial was not an easy task. The Court was plagued with challenges: financial constraints, challenging legal questions, the staggeringly slow pace of proceedings, lacking interest from the Sierra Leone population towards the end of the mandate, the precarious security situation in the first years of operations, the difficult relationship with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Then add further challenges unique to the Taylor proceedings such as the need to operate in three different countries and two different continents. These are only a few challenges amongst many more that endangered the success of this shoestring court. At the end of the day, SCSL has overcome these challenges to complete its mandate and contributed to Sierra Leone’s transition to peace and democracy. In retrospect, many of the problems encountered by the court now appear to be less acute in comparison to the other hybrid experiences in international criminal law.

Initially the sponsors of the court wished the court to deliver justice within three years. In the end it took more than a decade to accomplish the mandate. The Taylor trial alone lasted over six years. In its eleven years of existence, the SCSL issued 13 indictments against members of all warring factions resulting in eight convictions (not counting the Taylor conviction at the trial level, which if upheld would be the ninth). Only one accused, Johnny Paul Koroma, was never arrested and is believed to be deceased. Two accused (Foday Sankoh and Sam Bockarie) died shortly after charges were laid against them. Sam Hinga Norman died shortly before his judgment day in the Civil Defence Forces trial. Apart from those main “atrocity” trials, twelve contempt proceedings were initiated by the Prosecution resulting in ten convictions (one contempt case is still pending on appeal; one resulted in an acquittal, which so far is the one and only acquittal issued by the SCSL).

Following the Taylor Appeal Judgment, the SCSL will “transform” into the Residual Special Court for Sierra Leone (RSCSL) shortly after the completion of its mandate. According to the RSCSL statute this residual court will “continue the jurisdiction, functions, rights and obligations” of the SCSL. The developments leading to and the structure and work of this future organisation are explained in detail by Fidelma Donlon in the JICJ Symposium.

The Taylor Case and the Appeals Judgment

Taylor is accused of four charges of crimes against humanity (murder, rape, sexual slavery, other inhumane acts (i.e. mutilations), and enslavement), four charges of violations or Article 3 Common to the Geneva Conventions and of Additional Protocol II (acts of terrorism, murder, outrages upon personal dignity, cruel treatment, pillage) and for the conscription, enlistment or use of child soldiers. It is alleged that he committed those crimes on Sierra Leone soil from 30 November 1996 to 18 January 2002 remotely from Liberia.

Taylor was found guilty on all 11 counts by the trial judges on 26 April 2012. Even though Taylor’s conviction at trial may not have surprised the casual observer, he was actually convicted for far less than was initially charged by the prosecution. The prosecution was of the view that Taylor acted in concert with the leaders of the rebel movements in Sierra Leone (i.e. the RUF and AFRC) and that he and his co-conspirators shared the intend to commit all the crimes perpetrated in the Sierra Leone civil war. The judges rejected this claim, finding that the prosecution failed to proof the allegation that Taylor forged an agreement with the Sierra Leone rebels to commit crimes against the Sierra Leone population.

The Trial Chamber instead considered Taylor as an accessory and convicted him for aiding and abetting and planning crimes in a narrower time frame, i.e. from August 1997 to 18 January 2002. It found that Taylor aided and abetted by providing practical assistance, encouragement or moral support to the RUF in the commission of crimes during the course of their military operations in Sierra Leone. In that respect the Trial Chamber noted that “a common feature of all of the aforementioned forms of assistance is that they supported, sustained and enhanced the functioning of the RUF and its capacity to undertake military operations in the course of which crimes were committed” (Taylor Trial Judgment, para. 6936). It importantly and rather controversially held that the military operations of the RUF and RUF/AFRC were “inextricably linked to the commission of the crimes charged in the Indictment” (Taylor Trial Judgment, para. 6936). An individualized assessment of Taylor’s contribution to the specific crimes committed on Sierra Leone territory was therefore unnecessary. It was sufficient to simply proof that Taylor sustained the military operations of the rebels. As such military operations were, according to the Trial Chamber, “inextricably linked to the commission of the crimes” no proof to the substantial contribution to the individual crimes was any longer necessary. The Trial Chamber additionally found that Taylor devised a plan to attack major towns and the capital Freetown in late 1998 and early 1999 during which crimes were committed. Regarding his knowledge, the Trial Chamber found that Taylor was aware of the atrocities from at least the time when he assumed the presidency in Liberia in August 1997.

Many of the defence challenges on appeal questioned the evaluation of evidence by the trial judges. The facts of the case, and of the civil war more generally, were unsurprisingly complex. The trial judgment had to rely extensively on hearsay and circumstantial evidence. Some of the more troubling approaches to fact finding by the SCSL Chambers have been highlighted by Nancy Combs in her seminal book on “Fact Finding without Facts” and much of the same judicial attitudes towards inconsistencies and contradictions can be found in the Taylor Trial Judgment. It will be interesting to see how the Appeals Chamber addresses such challenges or whether it will simply rely on the principle that a “margin of deference” will be given to the fact finding of the Trial Chamber.

Apart from evidentiary questions one of the most controversial points on appeal will be the definition of aiding and abetting and whether this mode of attribution requires that the accused contributed with “specific direction” towards a crime. The Trial Chamber was of the opinion that the actus reus of aiding and abetting did not require such “specific direction”, relying on ICTY precedents in the Perišić Trial Judgment and Mrkšić Appeal Judgment. As other SCSL cases did in fact require such an element the rejection in the Taylor case is notable (RUF Trial Judgment, para. 277; CDF Trial Judgment, para. 229). In the Perišić Appeals Judgment, however, the ICTY Appeals Chamber controversially held that “specific direction” is a necessary element of aiding and abetting holding that:

“[I]n most cases, the provision of general assistance which could be used for both lawful and unlawful activities will not be sufficient, alone, to prove that this aid was specifically directed to crimes of principal perpetrators. In such circumstances, in order to enter a conviction for aiding and abetting, evidence establishing a direct link between the aid provided by an accused individual and the relevant crimes committed by principal perpetrators is necessary.”

More importantly, the SCSL Appeals Chamber’s own jurisprudence on this point is remarkable. In the CDF case it relieved an accused from criminal responsibility for aiding and abetting for providing military equipment, which was later used in the commission of crimes. At the time of his contribution CDF fighters were notorious for committing crimes against civilians. The Appeals Chamber stated that “the provision of logistics is not sufficient to establish beyond reasonable doubt that [the accused Fofana] contributed as an aider and abetter to the commission of specific criminal acts in Bo District(see CDF Appeals Judgment, para. 102). The similarities with the Taylor case are striking and it will be interesting to see whether the Appeals Chamber will apply the same standards to Taylor. In a critical analysis of the Trial Chamber’s legal findings, Kai Ambos and Ousman Njikam highlight some considerable deficiencies in the Taylor Trial Judgment, placing the judgment’s assessment within the broader international criminal law jurisprudence on individual criminal responsibility by addressing the effect of the recent Perišić Appeal Judgment.

As mentioned above, the significance of the Taylor case is usually attributed to the fact that Taylor was indicted as the sitting Liberian head of state. The Appeals Chamber dismissed the legal questions surrounding any claims of immunity in 2004, before Taylor’s arrest and initial appearance in spring 2006 (when Taylor had already stepped down from his presidency). Any questions of immunity will therefore not feature in the forthcoming Appeal Judgment. His “special status” as a Head of State at a time when he allegedly contributed to the crimes in Sierra Leone was however considered as an aggravating circumstance in the sentencing judgment of the Trial Chamber. This “special status” and the extraterritoriality of Taylor’s acts trumped all mitigating circumstances. A detailed critique of the Sentencing Judgment by Kevin Jon Heller in the JICJ symposium points to some of the possible flaws of the 50 year sentence, in particular addressing the fact that Taylor was convicted as an accomplice and not as a principal. Comparing the sentence received by Taylor with other SCSL convicts, Heller concludes that the 50 years sentence may be disproportionate. The fact that the extraterritoriality of Taylor’s acts was considered as an aggravating circumstance is striking. Here the Chamber’s silence on the nature of the conflict in its verdict is notable. Other SCSL judgments found that despite the alleged assistance from Liberia, the nature was non-international in character. If this holding is correct, crimes committed in international armed conflicts would routinely deserve a higher penalty.

The historical pronouncement of the Appeals Chamber Judgment will be accessible over live stream.

Simon Meisenberg is a Legal Advisor, Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (since 2011); former Senior Legal Officer (2009-2011) and Legal Officer (2005-2009) in the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Laurel Baig is the editor of the forthcoming symposium from Journal of International Criminal Justice entitled, Symposium: Last Judgment – The Taylor Trial Judgment and the Residual Future of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. This issue will be published online imminently, and all articles mentioned in the text of this blog post will be freely accessible for a limited time.

The views expressed here are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, or the United Nations in general.

The Journal of International Criminal Justice aims to promote a profound collective reflection on the new problems facing international law. Established by a group of distinguished criminal lawyers and international lawyers, the journal addresses the major problems of justice from the angle of law, jurisprudence, criminology, penal philosophy, and the history of international judicial institutions.

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