Liberians in the capital of Monrovia expressed sorrow and anger over Thursday’s war crimes conviction of their former president Charles Taylor, who is still considered by many Liberians to be a hero.
The Special Court for Sierra Leone in the Hague found Mr. Taylor guilty of aiding and abetting crimes including murder, terrorism, rape, sexual slavery, and mutilations committed by rebel forces during Sierra Leone’s civil war. The 11-year conflict, which ended in 2002, killed more than 50,000, and left many traumatized and maimed.
While Sierra Leoneans are expressing relief, the verdict was not widely welcomed in next-door Liberia. Taylor was also a central figure in Liberia’s own – even deadlier – civil war but the country has not pushed for war crimes prosecutions and remained defensive on the subject of Taylor. International human rights advocates say that the victory in the Hague needs to be followed up in places like Liberia where an atmosphere of impunity lingers.
“Taylor’s conviction shows that even those at the highest levels of power can be held to account for the worst crimes,” says Elise Keppler, senior counsel for the International Justice Program of Human Rights Watch. “Liberia has yet to initiate prosecutions for heinous crimes committed there, including under Taylor’s presidency. Liberia should follow Sierra Leone’s example so that Liberian victims can also see justice done.”
In downtown Monrovia men gathered at atai shops – the everyman’s political saloons where men meet to drink tea, eat cooked meat, and discuss politics – people sat, listening to their radios intently listening to the judgment.
Alfred Momo Kandakar Kromah, 40, a self-labeled political activist and ex-Taylor fighter stood outside a well-known atai shop: “The most God-fearing president is the Messiah Taylor. The Messiah Taylor will be in Liberia on the 30th of April,” he predicted, followed by the statement, “Ellen is Evil,” referring to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who had Taylor extradited from Nigeria to Liberia and then on to Sierra Leone where he had initially been held before he was transferred to the Hague.
In the Center for Excellence of Intellectual Ideas, an atai society, Secretary General Franklin Kasseh Wesseh, expressed his dismay when it started to become clear the verdict would be guilty.
“I fail to imagine why anyone would want to see their president found guilty – it saddens me to know that there are people out there who are taking pleasure in this,” Mr. Wesseh said. “[He] should be living here happily and freely with us just as others, who perpetrated mayhem and other serious crimes, are living with us today on the basis of reconciliation, people are taking pleasure in seeing one individual being nailed, that is my sadness.”
This is a common sentiment expressed in Liberia, a country in which many of those who were deeply involved in Liberia’s own 14-year civil war now hold senior positions in government. Liberia’s civil war killed an estimated 250,000 people and left the nation’s infrastructure in tatters and Liberians with traumatic memories of rape, torture, and humiliation at the hands of armed factions.
Charles Wreh, a 24-year-old seller of mobile phone scratch cards outside ministry of education building in downtown Monrovia, does not accept the dark picture painted of Taylor in the verdict.
“I don’t agree with the verdict because Charles Taylor is our president,” says Mr. Wreh. “Charles Taylor said he didn’t carry war to Sierra Leone so he should have been free.”
“Charles Taylor is a good guy. He took good care of us in Liberia. He used to bring us food, drop money.… Things rare fine now, but you have to struggle more.”
In an early sign that Liberians were willing to overlook Taylor’s human rights record, Taylor was voted president in 1997 in a campaign that included the slogan, “He killed my Ma, he killed my Pa, but I will vote for him.” But some say Taylor’s landslide victory may in part be attributed to war fatigue and the desire for some kind of stability.
IN PICTURES: War criminals on trial
But for some of those Liberians who did lose family or faced persecution, the decision in the Hague is welcome.
John Denker, a worker at the Ministry of Education whose father was killed by Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), sees it as a victory for human rights.
“Charles Taylor being guilty is not a surprise to the Liberians. He brought war and suffering to the country,” Mr. Denker says. “The NPFL killed my father and everything I worked for they destroyed…. He deserved it.”
Counselor Tiawan Gongloe, a human rights lawyer who was severely tortured under Taylor’s orders when he criticized the government in 2002, said the judgment was a triumph for human rights in Liberia, the region, and the world as a whole. But most importantly, he said, it marks an end to Taylor’s political influence in Liberia.
“We could never have sustainable peace in this country without a closure to the Taylor era. Liberia will be a peaceful place from now on – a peaceful, progressive and prosperous nation.”