The Strange Case of Charles Taylor
Every day, shortly before 9:30, the curtain goes up—automated venetian blinds rising behind what must be bulletproof glass—and the players take the stage. The accused enters from the left, accompanied by two guards, sits down with his back to the audience, and awaits his judges. We watch through a long, rectangular window set into the back wall, a widescreen view of the cramped confines of the courtroom. There’s no shout, no bang of the gavel, only the plush voice of Rachel Irura, the court manager, almost whispering through the headset in your ear: “All rise.”
The Special Court for Sierra Leone is no longer in session, but over the course of seven months in 2009 and early 2010, the star was Charles Taylor. Most of the time the house was empty. Every other high profile suspect the Court intended to prosecute died (two of them in its custody) or disappeared. The Court itself is a curious animal, a hybrid which exists by virtue of a treaty between Sierra Leone and the U.N.While the Court is based in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, Taylor’s case was considered so volatile he was shipped off to the Hague. His near-mythic proportions dissipate in the rented courtroom.
Taylor, the former elected president of Liberia (1997 - 2003). Taylor, the West’s nightmare vision of an African leader, like some figure out of colonial propaganda. Taylor, the warlord, the big man, a figure from Conrad. Taylor, the cannibal. Taylor, whose National Patriotic Front of Liberia (N.P.F.L.) celebrated Christmas 1989 by invading the country (it was a gift that kept on giving; 14 years of sporadic warfare followed). Taylor, “papay” to a generation of child soldiers. Taylor, leader of the N.P.F.L., which Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission held responsible for just under 40 percent of the human rights violations it documented, far more than any other faction in the conflict. Taylor, whose opponents, once he was elected president, were often detained, sometimes tortured, and lucky if they didn’t die under suspicious circumstances (if you can call being picked up by security forces and found beheaded in the charred remains of your car suspicious). Taylor, who assiduously plundered Liberia’s natural resources for more than a decade to arm his soldiers and enrich his supporters.
Taylor was tried for none of this.