The Special Court for Sierra Leone delivered its verdict in the trial of Charles Taylor last Thursday. Charles Taylor had been charged with providing material support to the Revolutionary United Front which killed thousands of civilians in Sierra Leone during the civil war from 1991 until 2002.
This is a very significant decision for a number of reasons. First of all, Charles Taylor is the first former head of state to have been convicted before an international criminal tribunal since the Nuremberg Trials in the aftermath of World War II. Even though Charles Taylor was found not guilty of ordering war crimes or crimes against humanity the Special Court for Sierra Leone concluded that he had supplied weapons and soldiers to the Revolutionary United Front. The Court therefore found Charles Taylor guilty of aiding and abetting war crimes during the civil war in Sierra Leone. Moreover, the Special Court for Sierra Leone concluded that Taylor had express knowledge that the Revolutionary United Front were carrying out atrocities against the general civilian population. Even though Taylor claimed that he had attempted to facilitate peace talks with the Revolutionary United Front the Court nevertheless concluded that Taylor had in fact encouraged the rebel group not to disarm and to carry on their armed attacks against civilians.
Human rights groups have welcomed last week’s verdict. In particular, Elise Keppler from Human Rights Watch told the BBC that “[t]his is a significant decision” and that “Charles Taylor has been called to account for the crimes in Sierra Leone. It is an incredible day for international justice but most of all for victims in Sierra Leona and everywhere.” Nevertheless, the Court’s judgement last Thursday was not without controversy. Following the reading of the verdict by Presiding Judge Lussick, Judge El Hadji Malik Sow made an attempt to speak. According to both Jennifer Easterday and Sara Kendall who were seated in the public gallery, “a few words from an unidentified speaker [were heard] before the microphones were cut
off.” A metal grate was also lowered to hide the courtroom from the public gallery.
Moreover, while people waited for press statements from the prosecution and the defense teams, a document was apparently circulated containing the statement made by Judge Sow. It would appear that the court stenographer had carried on typing into the transcription program even though the other judges were filing out of the courtroom. This text appeared on the screens of those seated in the courtroom. A legal assistant on the defense team of Charles Taylor wrote down the brief statement out of concern that the Special Court for Sierra Leone would not include the judge’s statement in the official record. Judge Sow’s statement was as follows:
The only moment where a Judge can express his opinion is during the deliberations or in the courtroom, and pursuant to the rules, when there is no deliberations, the only place for me in the courtroom. I won’t get – because I think we have been sitting for too long but for me I have my dissenting opinion and I disagree with the findings and conclusions of the other Judges, standard of proof the guilt of the accused from the evidence provided in this trial is not proved beyond reasonable doubt by the Prosecution. And my only worry is that the whole system is not consistent with all the principles we know and love, and the system is not consistent with the values of international criminal justice, and I’m afraid the whole system is under grave danger of just losing all credibility, and I’m afraid this whole thing is heading for failure.
Despite the fact that Judge Sow, as an alternate judge, was not entitled to speak during the delivery of the verdict, his brief statement raises a number of interesting questions. First of all, his statement indicates that there were “no deliberations” indicating that there were significant communication problems among the judges in Trial Chamber II. Judge Sow also criticised the length of the trial which lasted for nearly four years. He also questioned the Trial Chamber’s judgment that the Prosecution had satisfactorily proven their case against Charles Taylor beyond reasonable doubt. Nevertheless it is important to note that the full judgment has yet to be released. Therefore, it is not yet clear what evidence was found satisfactory to meet the burden of proof required. In any event, it remains to be seen whether the Judge Sow’s statement will have a lasting impact on the legacy of the Special Court for Sierra Leone.