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Former Liberian president: CIA freed me from jail

By Saeed Shabazz -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Aug 14, 2009 - 9:38:36 PM

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UNITED NATIONS (FinalCall.com) - Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia and the first African head of state to be put on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity, continues to proclaim his innocence at his trial in The Hague.

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Graphic: MGN Online
Mr. Taylor was well into his third week of testimony at Final Call press time and faces up to 11 counts of crimes, including mass killings, mutilations, and sex crimes, in neighboring Sierra Leone. He is also accused of human rights violations—such as enslavement, looting, terrorizing and imposing collective punishments on civilians during the 11-year conflict in Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002. The war claimed 75,000 lives, according to the United Nations.

Mr. Taylor served as president of Liberia from 1997 to 2003.

Mr. Taylor's trial is being held in the Netherlands at the International Criminal Court (ICC) compound in The Hague because of security concerns. He is not being tried by the ICC, but by a Special Court for Sierra Leone established by UN Security Council Resolution 1688 in 2006. The trial began in earnest on January 7, 2008 after Mr. Taylor ended his boycott of the proceedings.

The prosecution rested its case in February after calling 91 witnesses.

Mr. Taylor began his testimony on July 15, saying the CIA freed him from an American jail in 1985 where he was held after accusations of embezzlement were lodged by Samuel Doe, a onetime U.S. ally and brutal Liberian dictator. Mr. Taylor, who had been a high official in the Doe regime, became one of several rebel leaders who opposed Mr. Doe. He entered Liberia to fight a guerilla war in 1989.

Mr. Taylor has dismissed the case against him as “lies” and “misinformation.”

Observers have said there was always a question about how Mr. Taylor got out of jail and out of the United States. Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. attorney general and founder of the International Action Center, a human rights advocacy organization, represented Mr. Taylor during the early stages of his extradition hearing in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts.

“When Taylor escaped I heard about it right away,” Mr. Clark told The Final Call during an interview on Aug. 5. “I don't see how he could have gotten out of that prison at Plymouth, Mass., and out of the country by himself,” Mr. Clark said. However, he refused to speculate on who was responsible, saying he has never known who helped Mr. Taylor escape.

Mr. Clark did take a swing at the legitimacy of the court trying Mr. Taylor. “The court is a real problem, not a legal court, a creation of the UN Security Council. I have been very concerned by all of these courts, which seem to merely be the UN pursuing people who are the enemies of the powerful nations,” Mr. Clark said.

On July 21, Mr. Taylor testified about the 1991 outbreak of civil war in Sierra Leone and the participation of the rebel Revolutionary United Front and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, a second rebel group. Mr. Taylor said he did not help plan the groups' attacks—nor did he know of the existence of these groups before the conflict began. Prosecutors say Mr. Taylor aided the rebels with weapons and ammo in exchange for diamonds. He denies the charge.

Mr. Taylor asserted “certain super powers,” including America, provided him with $10 million—including $5 million to buy arms at the start of Liberia's civil war in the 1990s.

Mr. Taylor told the judges in late July that the international community knew of and approved of his contacts with the forces fighting in Sierra Leone. He insisted he acted as a representative of the Economic Community of West African States.

According to Mr. Taylor, the United Nations and ECOWAS were kept in the loop and he reported to then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan or his special envoy to Liberia.

“Liberians are paying close attention to the Taylor trial,” said Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies. There had been speculation for quite some time in Liberia that “the U.S. played both sides during the conflict,” Ms. Woods said.

Ms. Woods, a Liberian national, admitted many are waiting to see who else Mr. Taylor names as participants in the horrors that gripped her country during the conflict. Many feel the Taylor trial should focus on war crimes in Liberia, Ms. Woods added.

Human Rights Watch said the charges against the former president are related to his alleged role as a major backer of the Sierra Leone rebel forces.

On Aug. 4, Mr. Taylor dismissed allegations he has stashed huge amounts of money earned through illicit diamond trading and has secret bank accounts scattered around the world. “What bank accounts has the UN found that are for me?” Mr. Taylor asked. He said no one has produced evidence of their existence, “but it is repeated, repeated, repeated.”

He dismissed as folly any suggestion that while Liberian security forces were without arms, he was supplying forces in another nation; and that while Liberians were suffering he was wasting time planning attacks in Sierra Leone.

A report of Mr. Taylor's testimony is available daily on the internet at www.CharlesTaylorTrial.org, a project of the Open Society Justice Initiative; and can be viewed at http://www.sc-sl.org.

Elise Keppler, of the Human Rights Watch International Justice Program in New York, said, “This is an incredibly important trial, especially important to West Africa, where there has been so much civil strife; it shows people there that the rule of law works for all.”

“Charles Taylor is accused of some horrific crimes; and we are not suggesting that he is guilty and must be convicted; but, that it is the process of hearing the evidence in open court that is important,” Ms. Keppler said.

She also responded to the charge that the courts of international justice are only going after Africans. A lot of horrific crimes have been committed in Africa and three out of four of the present cases, such as Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, were referred by those nations, said Ms. Keppler.

“I don't want to suggest that the international justice system has been perfect. Human Rights Watch is working to level the playing field,” she said.

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