War Criminal Charles Taylor Clears the Courtroom
Former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who spurred a decade of violence in neighboring Sierra Leone, is on trial for war crimes. Why don't Sierra Leoneans seem to care?
It is nine o’clock in the morning on a rainy Wednesday in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. The main courtroom at the Special Court sits empty, save for televisions filled with former Liberian President Charles Taylor’s face. The half-dozen screens are broadcasting live footage from The Hague. Four rows of wooden benches and 14 rolling black office chairs are unoccupied.
The Sierra Leonean government and the United Nations established the Special Court to try those who bear the greatest responsibility for the decade-long war that displaced a third of the country’s population of six million and left tens of thousands dead. During the war, which started in 1991, armed factions funded and supplied by countries like Liberia and Libya battled for control of Sierra Leone’s diamond mines. They used revolutionary rhetoric and sheer brutality to recruit young men, and often children, to their swelling ranks — and to the decimation of Sierra Leone.
All the other cases that have been and will be tried by the Special Court have taken place in this very room.
But not Taylor’s. The Special Court indicted him on 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law. Sierra Leoneans and the international community agreed that trying him in Freetown was a grave threat to regional security. He still enjoys widespread popular support in Liberia to this day. The fear that his supporters would return to Sierra Leone and wreak more havoc was very real.
His case was transferred to The Hague, to keep him and Sierra Leone safe. It streams live across the world over the Internet. And it is broadcast in this courtroom in Freetown.
As I write this, Taylor is identifying people by name in a faded color photograph, 3,200 miles away. Not that most Sierra Leoneans care. Taylor has brutalized and terrorized this country since 1991. His case sparked a flurry of interest at first. But now, most seem more interested in moving forward than looking back at the Liberian strongman they blame for most of their problems.
Every day that Taylor has testified, he has made headlines in the Western media. "Warlord Charles Taylor in the Hot Seat in the Hague," ABC reported on July 14. "Liberia’s Taylor saw ‘nothing wrong’ with displaying skulls," the Agence France Presse described on July 16. "Charles Taylor denies cannibalism," the BBC said on July 27.
The media in Sierra Leone is covering the trial too. But on this day, a story about a sex-for-grades scandal at the university dominates the headlines.
Over the next few hours, several people trickle in. Two female Sierra Leonean journalists take notes for a bit, and then one of them falls asleep. A pair of Mongolian peacekeepers from Liberia’s U.N. mission pose for photos in front of the largest screen projection of Taylor’s disembodied face.
An older Sierra Leonean man named Dauda A. Sessay arrives in the afternoon. He has come every day since the beginning of the trial and makes a point to mention he would have been here earlier today but for the rain. Sessay was a sales manager for Coca Cola before he retired a few years ago. His entire village — about two hundred homes — was destroyed during the war, burned to the ground without a trace remaining. Now, he lives in a small home in town with his wife and walks to the court every day.
"I have come every day out of curiosity. To hear from this man himself what we in Sierra Leone already know," Sessay says.
He adds that a handful of people come somewhat regularly, maybe once or twice a week, but he’s the only person there every day, day in and day out.
"When Charles Taylor was here," Peter Andersen, the head of public affairs in the court, told me, "you couldn’t have kept people away with a stick. There were lines of people down the sidewalk. People came to the court with their kids. You couldn’t get a seat."
But things have changed since the first time he was in Freetown, and even more since the first time he testified at the court. Public interest has dropped rapidly.
This may be, in part, because of the complex issues of nationality present at the trial. Charles Taylor, a former Liberian president, is charged with funding rebels in Sierra Leone, and is being tried by a proxy of a Sierra Leonean court in the Netherlands.
Even the Special Court itself seems confused. Designed by Britons, it is a strange example of modern architecture that resembles a corset trying to squeeze an egg into the shape of an hourglass. The building would fit in well on the streets of Stockholm, but looks out of place in hilly Freetown filled with "pan body" homes made from tin sheets.
"Many people think Taylor is not telling the truth and that we’re wasting money," says Patrick Fatoma, who spends a good amount of time upcountry on behalf of the court, teaching people about due process. "People say, ‘He should just be held guilty right now!’ Many people don’t understand that the accused have rights too."
Fatoma also mentions that people don’t want to think about the past. "We are reconciling but not forgiving."
Sessay has his own theory as to why more people don’t come to hear the testimony: They think there’s no way anyone would ever let Taylor off free, so they don’t come to watch the blow-by-blow. That, and the rain this morning.
But he knows there’s more to this too. If he didn’t live nearby the court building, he wouldn’t be able to come watch the trial either. "As a retired person, I couldn’t afford transport every day, maybe just once in a while."
Still, Sessay would rather not live in Freetown. He misses the quiet of the village, and wishes he didn’t have a reason to walk 10 to 15 minutes every day.
More from Foreign Policy
America Is a Heartbeat Away From a War It Could Lose
Global war is neither a theoretical contingency nor the fever dream of hawks and militarists.
The West’s Incoherent Critique of Israel’s Gaza Strategy
The reality of fighting Hamas in Gaza makes this war terrible one way or another.
Biden Owns the Israel-Palestine Conflict Now
In tying Washington to Israel’s war in Gaza, the U.S. president now shares responsibility for the broader conflict’s fate.
Taiwan’s Room to Maneuver Shrinks as Biden and Xi Meet
As the latest crisis in the straits wraps up, Taipei is on the back foot.