25 September 2003

West Africa: Nigeria Will Hand Over Charles Taylor, Predicts War Crimes Prosecutor

interview

Washington, DC — The ambitions of the now-exiled Liberian President Charles Taylor fueled Sierra Leone's long conflict, says David Crane, the chief prosecutor of the United Nations-created Special Court for Sierra Leone - a war crimes tribunal. Now that Taylor has been removed from Liberia, investigators for the Court will be moving into the Liberian capital, Monrovia, to pursue "aiders and abetters" of Sierra Leone's war crimes. Although the court has indicted Taylor, there are other Liberians the Court is interested in as well, according to Crane.

Sierra Leone's long conflict has always been bound up with Liberia. It began in March 1991, when the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) under Foday Sankoh launched an insurgency against the All Peoples Congress government of President Joseph Momoh. The RUF was assisted by Charles Taylor, then a warlord fighting a war against Liberia's government since late 1989. After he had secured the Liberian presidency, Taylor continued to support the RUF and as in Liberia, the RUF's military strategy centred on a campaign of terror against civilians, including summary amputations and other physical mutilations of civilians, the use of child soldiers, rape and pillage.

Those cross-border links led Sierra Leone's Special Court to issue a 17-count indictment against Taylor in March 2003. But the indictment was sealed until June when Taylor was attending preliminary peace talks hosted in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, aimed at ending Liberia's civil war. Once Taylor had arrived in Accra, an international arrest warrant was issued for him. The surprise move embarrassed and angered Ghana's government which had little notice and feared the collapse of the peace process if they arrested Taylor; he was allowed to get back on his plane and return to Liberia. But chief prosecutor Crane says the Court had to take the opportunity of trying to get Taylor arrested while he was outside Liberia because they could not hope to do so in Monrovia.

Although Taylor has been given sanctuary in Nigeria, Crane says that he believes Nigeria will eventually turn him over to the Special Court. And, says Crane, Sierra Leone's Special Court is ushering in a new approach to war crimes. He spoke with AllAfrica's Charles Cobb Jr. Excerpts:

Let's start with Liberia and Charles Taylor. United Nations officials as well as Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, have recently accused exiled former Liberian president Charles Taylor of continuing to meddle in Liberian affairs. It is said that he has been receiving Liberian political visitors in his bungalow in Calabar and that he is giving his backers money to buy guns. Can you confirm any of this? Are you keeping an eye on one of your most wanted?

I personally can't confirm exactly what he is doing. It should be of no surprise to the people of West Africa or to those who know Charles Taylor that when he promised "I will be back" as he was getting on that airplane to Nigeria, he meant that, and he meant that in terms of coming back as the president of Liberia or sneaking into the bush and starting the whole process [of bush warfare] over again as he did in 1990 to gain power. And what a horror story that would be. I am not surprised that President Obasanjo had to warn him recently to cease and desist running and advising the government of Moses Blah while he was in political exile in Nigeria.

I am not party to any of the deals that were made related to Nigeria and Liberia so I am not sure whether there were any conditions, but it doesn't matter to me because the bottom line to me is that Charles Taylor's exile is a temporary measure to get him out of Liberia.

Are you in any discussions with the Nigerian government concerning the extradition of Charles Taylor to Sierra Leone to stand trial? What exactly is the procedure you would follow at this point given the indictment of Taylor months ago and his current sanctuary in Nigeria. What do you do now?

Well, Nigeria took a very important leadership role in ensuring that peace continued in Liberia. One has to understand that when I publicly announced the indictment of Charles Taylor on the fourth of June, I said that Charles Taylor has to be removed from the equation for true peace to start in Liberia -- and actually all of West Africa. Certainly that happened on 11 August when he stepped on an airplane and went into exile to Nigeria as a disgraced war criminal. A legitimate peace process began to take place. However, because he is still at large, he is still causing problems. Charles Taylor has breached over eight peace accords and 13 ceasefires. He was using the Accra (Ghana) summit as another means by which he could hang on to political power and to manipulate events while the rebels began to move on Monrovia.

So, what we're doing with Nigeria at this point is allowing the dust to settle to ensure that peace starts in Liberia. But Nigeria is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, various African and international conventions related to this type of topic including the African Convention on Human Rights, along with the Rome Statute which created the International Criminal Court. They state clearly that if you have a known war criminal, or someone who is suspected of being a war criminal that you should investigate or put that person on trial yourself, or turn them over to the appropriate organization. They know this; they know they have to do this and so I am allowing Nigeria to sort this out. But at the end of the day, Charles Taylor must be turned over to the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone.

Do you have any indications that Nigeria is actually investigating Charles Taylor, doing or planning to do any of these things you've just listed?

I'm not aware of them. They can certainly investigate or do what they want to do as far as the crimes that he has committed, however there are a lot of legal hurdles which they would have to face under Nigerian law. It's not necessary. It's appropriate for them to turn him over to the Court by which he has been charged with 17 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. This is probably the more prudent way to go.

Do you think Nigeria will actually do that?

Yes I do, as a matter of fact. Internationally, domestically there is a great deal of support for this to happen. President Obasanjo has very little support for keeping Taylor in Nigeria. Civil society, local NGOs as well as the Nigerian Bar Association, the Nigerian Journalists Association, former commanding generals of Nigerian troops who lost their lives in Liberia back in the mid-nineties - there have been thousands of Nigerian soldiers and civilians murdered by Charles Taylor and his forces in the 1990s.

When you unsealed the indictment of Taylor during Liberian peace talks in Ghana, there was anger and embarrassment on the part of the Ghana government, and sympathy for Ghana's anger and embarrassment from other nations in the region. "Yes he's a bad guy. And yes he's probably a war criminal, but he came here at our invitation to negotiate," might sum up their attitude. Ghana didn't turn him over to you. Somewhat in that same vein today, despite newspaper editorials wanting him kicked out of the country, the stance of the Nigerian government might be, "Well, we shook his hand and promised him sanctuary here. No, we're not going to turn him over to you," Why do you think Nigeria will hand him over to you?

One is because the law requires it. Nigeria has signed onto those international instruments that require that. If they do not, they are in fact, violating international law.

The second point is that peace is important in West Africa but in order to have a legitimate peace you cannot be dealing with indicted war criminals who have an arrest warrant out for them, who have been manipulating the peace process for over 14 years. You cannot have a true peace, and they knew it in Ghana. Many players in the Ghana peace talks knew that Charles Taylor had been indicted; it was an open secret in some ways even though we did not reveal it. It was very apparent that in order to have a legitimate process the negotiators had to know that they were dealing with an indicted war criminal so that once this card was turned over, a legitimate peace process could start, as opposed to one that would have eventually been considered a sham and a way of manipulating the good intentions of other nations so that one [participant] could survive and live another day which is what Charles Taylor's ultimate motive was.

So when we unsealed the indictment we wanted to see true peace happen in West Africa. And at the end of the day that is exactly what happened. The indictment stripped Charles Taylor of all of his political viability and legitimacy. He was appropriately removed as the war criminal that he is and moved out of the situation and placed in another country. It's appreciated that Nigeria took that responsibility but at the end of the day they know what the law is; they've always known what the law is. There can be no exception - no African exception - to the Nuremburg principles. The rest of the world knows that. Africa knows that. And more importantly, the people of Africa know that there cannot be an exception to the Nuremburg principles; they no one is above the law even if they are a head of state.

Impunity must be faced down wherever it is found, particularly in the 21st century. If it is not, for another 100 years we will be facing other Charles Taylors in other parts of Africa and I would say, in other parts of the world.

One last question on Taylor before moving on to the Sierra Leone tribunal itself - for the historical record as well as news. After indicting Taylor, why did you seal the indictment and wait three months until the Ghana talks before unsealing it?

That is a tool that a prosecutor can use to ensure that when he does unseal it he effects justice. At the time, Charles Taylor was in Monrovia; he was not coming out. In fact, if we had publicly announced his indictment along with the others we had indicted during 'Operation Justice' on the 10th of March he would never have left Monrovia. We could never have touched him and there would never have been the process which we have started over this past summer which is his disgrace, his removal and now we have a UN peace force going in. For the first time in over a decade, there is a real possibility that peace will start in Liberia, when Charles Taylor is turned over. Remember, true peace will not happen in Liberia until Charles Taylor is behind bars awaiting a fair trial.

Were you surprised that the Ghanaians didn't hand him over?

The Ghanaians did what they had to do based on their perspective and their perception. They knew they had an obligation to turn him over, but they chose not to. History will review that decision. They [Ghana government] were adequately told long before he [Taylor] arrived at the convention hall to meet with the heads of state. They were told that he had been indicted and that the indictment would be announced at 11am their time. They were emailed, faxed, and personally served with the indictment as well as the arrest warrant.

When?

That morning, around 8 o'clock.

If we can turn directly to Sierra Leone now. Meeting at the same time as the United Nations Special Court, a war crimes tribunal for which you are the chief prosecutor, is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. How can you expect people who have committed war crimes to open up before a Truth and Reconciliation Commission since what they say could conceivably be evidence used against them for prosecution by the tribunal?

We have shown the world that in the year that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Special Court for Sierra Leone have worked together that you can have a truth commission and a war crimes tribunal doing the important work of bringing peace to a region, and we have done that. It's largely an A + B equals C proposition. The TRC as well as the Special Court both must succeed in order for a just and sustainable peace to actually happen in Sierra Leone. In fact, I advocate that you must have a TRC when you have a war crimes tribunal because together it allows the victims - their families, the villages - to put into the historical record what took place over a period of time. And also to see those who created that circumstance brought to justice. So truth and justice actually bring peace.

But if you're an RUF guy who has been out there killing, why would you show up at a TRC with the prospect of indictment based on your own testimony?

Well actually it's happened. When I first got to Sierra Leone I said that as the prosecutor I would use no information that was given to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I encouraged people to go before the TRC in my many town hall meetings where I walked throughout the countryside listening. I told them how important the TRC was, how important it was to get the truth out so that reconciliation could start. And I said that my mandate is for those who bear the greatest responsibilities. So those who were part of the tragedy but those who weren't the leaders, the aiders and abetters, that they had no fear that the prosecutor, the Special Court would indict them but would encourage them to tell their story, and that's exactly what has happened. Over 8,000 statements; many combatants actually talking about what they did and in many instances asking for forgiveness. That, I think, is a success story.

What I am saying is that you can have a truth and reconciliation commission and a war crimes tribunal work side-by-side together to bring peace. And I think it is the complete equation. You just can't have A, and you just can't have B, you have to have A + B equals C, which is the peace.

Who are you targeting since you're not targeting every single RUF fighter. I assume you are targeting the leadership. What should we look for in the sense of indictments?

The international community and the Republic of Sierra Leone asked me to try those who bear the greatest responsibility; those who caused, sustained, aided and abetted the tragedy that took place for over 10 years in Sierra Leone and West Africa. So as an officer of the Court I must follow the law and only go after those who did just that: aid, abet and sustain the conflict. That is a much smaller number than those who were participants.

Is there a number?

At this point we have 13 indictments; nine of them are in jail, two of them are on the run and two are deceased. We have taken out of West Africa thirteen of the most dangerous human beings who caused this tragedy. There will not be many more indictments. These are ones that truly started, joined, aided and abetted this joint criminal enterprise that terrorized all of West Africa. And Charles Taylor was the center point.

Is 'Mosquito' or 'Maskita' - Sam Bokarie dead?

Samuel Bokarie is deceased. He was murdered by Charles Taylor - on the orders of Charles Taylor, by firing squad back around mid-May. At this point we officially consider Johnny Paul Koroma alive and he is indicted. However, we have reason to believe that he was also murdered by Charles Taylor's orders on or around one June. And so when we move into Monrovia and Liberia very soon to continue our investigation we will either find Johnny Paul Koroma or we will find his body.

You will be moving into Monrovia when?

Soon. Within the next month.

Why there? You're the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

To continue our investigation. We have witnesses, we have physical evidence. Remember, Charles Taylor is one of our indictees and there are other Liberians that we are interested in as well.

How does a court looking into war crimes in one country actually go to another country?

As a matter of permission and also with the support of the new United Nations peacekeeping operation in Liberia who have been very supportive.

But has the government said, "yes, come in?" It is not clear just what the government of Liberia is right now. Are we talking about [vice president] Moses Blah, really what's left of Taylor's government, or are we talking of the still forming transitional government?

Yes. We do go in with the permission of the Liberian government. Our presence is not clandestine. You have to understand that the mandate for the Special Court is an international mandate and that we can investigate anywhere in the world and can indict anyone in the world that has a direct reflection on the crimes that we are charged to investigate and prosecute, crimes that have taken place in Sierra Leone since November of 1996.

So the Court can set up in Liberia?

No. The Court isn't moving into Liberia. We have investigators around the world. And we will have some investigators who will be operating out of Monrovia as they have been doing out of other countries over the past year. They could not go into Monrovia until Charles Taylor was removed. Now that he has been removed and there is stability and their safety is assured they are moving into Monrovia like they have in other West African countries, European countries, North American countries and what have you. This is a worldwide criminal investigation.

Many analysts think that Taylor built a network that destabilized the region, and that his ambitions have always been regional, pointing not only to the RUF, but Guinea, influence in Burkina Faso, blood diamonds...

You've left out Cote D'Ivoire.

Yes. the whole western edge of Cote D'Ivoire. So, would you say that this Sierra Leone war crimes tribunal is not so much a Sierra Leone tribunal as an investigation of Taylor and his West African network?

The answer is yes. The Sierra Leonean conflict was a regional conflict and in some ways an international conflict. And again, it's important to emphasize this is an international war crimes tribunal with an international mandate investigating an international criminal conspiracy that expands throughout West Africa. The center point in West Africa was Charles Taylor. And so, we are going wherever the evidence may lead us.

How nervous should I be if I am, say, the president of Burkina Faso?

We're looking at everyone neutrally and fairly and again, following the evidence wherever it may lead.

The Court itself is composed of both Sierra Leonean jurists and international jurists. Is this unique?

The beauty of the Special Court is that, one, it's in Sierra Leone; two, it is made up of professionals in the office of the prosecutors, the office of the registrar as well as the office of the judges - professionals who are not only Sierra Leoneans but Africans as well as internationals. So it is called a "hybrid" international war crimes tribunal; it is the next generation of war crimes tribunal and the future of war crimes tribunals as related to regional conflict. This is a first-ever at this point. This is the first time that you have internationals as well as nationals participating in an international war crimes tribunal.

We have two chambers. We have the trial chamber. We have the appellate chamber. By statute, one of the judges in the trial chamber must be a Sierra Leonean and by statute, two of the five appellate judges must be nominated by Sierra Leone. In my office, of the prosecutors and investigators, over a third are Sierra Leoneans and there is another seven percent from other parts of Africa. So almost half of my office, over forty percent plus, are from Africa, as it should be.

As you undoubtedly know, there has been considerable criticism of the Rwandan court because of cost. What might be called the cost-indictment ratio is widely held to be unsatisfactory. What about your own costs? How much is this court costing?

That's another beauty of the Special Court. It has a specific mandate with specific individuals with a specific time and so we've been able to keep the costs effectively low. Our first year cost the international community only US$19 million. That includes starting the investigation, hiring staff, building the court complex as well as executing the indictments. Over a period of about three years the Special Court will cost the international community about $75m. We're on the average of about $25m a year. And we'll be done within the three years that we are mandated. In fact we could even be done sooner. We have shown the world that international criminal justice can be done within budget, within a specific time frame and be very effective in targeting those who they are mandated to prosecute. I have no standing to criticize my sister tribunals. They were created at a different time and they have their own challenges. But certainly the Special Court in Sierra Leone is showing that international criminal justice can be done efficiently and effectively.

Finally, let me ask the personal question. How do you get from the Pentagon's Judge Advocate office to being chief prosecutor for the Sierra Leone Special Court?

I was appointed by Kofi Annan in April, 2002 after going though a rigorous vetting process, after being interviewed by numerous nations. So it is truly an international appointment. I spent over 31 years in public service, twenty years of that as a judge advocate in the judge advocate general's corps in the Department of Defense. After that I was in the senior executive service and was practicing law in this area...

By "this area" do you mean war crimes?

International law as well as national security law and criminal law. Before I was appointed and came to Sierra Leone I was conducting very sensitive and very wide-ranging investigations for the Secretary of Defense. I also have a masters degree in West African studies. I speak Hausa, a West African lingua franca. I have a professional degree where I studied the culture, the music, the poetry, the geography, the history and the governments of West Africa. My specialty is criminal law, international law, and also being able to create organizations and move them forward in such a way that they are able to accomplish their mission.

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