The Hague & The Plague
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Back in lockup, Thomas DeVoll said the guards in Plymouth brought him newspaper clippings about the wars in West Africa.
“They would say, ‘Look—Charley’ and give me a Time magazine or a Boston Herald,” he told the New Bedford Standard-Times in 2003.
DeVoll said he even “called the embassy … just to say ‘hi’ and ask how he was doing. ‘I would like to see him. He has a great personality.’”
International authorities and human rights watchers disagreed. Feeling pressure from all angles, after 14 years on the battlefield and about six years in office, Charles Taylor officially stepped down on Aug. 11, 2003, and went to live in exile in Nigeria.
In March 2003, the dethroned president of Liberia living in exile woke up with his face on a fresh Interpol wanted poster addressed to “Governments of All States.”
As the last of the West African warlords waved the white flag, the former US Chair of the House Subcommittee on Africa authored a congressional resolution calling on Nigeria to send Charles Taylor to the Hague.
Nigerian authorities halfheartedly caved to international pressure in 2005, but stalled over extradition responsibilities. Then, they lost sight of him in 2006.
For a moment, international alarm bells rang on high.
“This is the nightmare scenario that many were worried about,” former California Congressman Ed Royce said in a statement.
“Yesterday, a State Department spokesman said that the United States told Nigerian President Obasanjo that it was Nigeria’s responsibility to see that [Taylor] is able to be conveyed and face justice. Obviously, this was not done, and for that, the Nigerians must be held accountable. Nigeria reportedly has let a mass murderer with alleged links to al-Qaeda slip out the back door.”
But the warlord’s luck finally ran out.
On March 29, 2006, Taylor was busted for a bribery attempt at the Cameroon border. According to Time, “A light-colored Land Rover carrying him and four companions—believed to be his wife, son, driver and an aide—drove past an unmanned immigration checkpoint before encountering a final gate across a narrow bridge. … Witnesses say the driver and aide got out of the vehicle and started fiddling with the gate’s lock.”
The account continued, “Nigerian customs officials approached the men, who tried to bribe the officers into letting them pass, then fled. Inside the SUV, officers found two boxes filled with U.S. dollars. Taylor was in the backseat, wearing a flowing white robe.”
It was the first time Charles Taylor found himself in handcuffs since his stint on the South Shore more than two decades prior.
Speaking before the UN in 2006, newly-elected Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf formally asked Nigeria to surrender Charles Taylor to face justice. At the same time, she shut down the prospect of having a tribunal in Monrovia.
“He doesn’t need to be tried here,” Sirleaf said in an interview with the Associated Press in 2007. “Let him go through the due process that has already charged him on so many counts.”
Still, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia recommended that the country host a tribunal modeled after the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
Officials reportedly collected 20,000 statements and direct testimony from more than 500 Liberians between 2006 to 2009, and compiled a list of alleged perpetrators of human rights violations and war crimes.
Ultimately, Taylor’s trial was “held in the Hague for fear of destabilizing West Africa.”
Many Africans saw the move as unjust, but prosecutors weren’t taking any chances. Reuters reported that “a former fighter told the court he had killed men, women and babies on Taylor’s orders and had eaten the heart of a former rebel leader.”
After reviewing a mountain of evidence, plus testimony from about 100 victims, witnesses, and former combatants, along with seven months of personal testimony, the Special Court for Sierra Leone handed down their verdict in April 2012.
Taylor was found guilty of 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law.
He often alluded to treasure troves of secrets and damning evidence against Uncle Sam, all while dancing around details pertaining to Plymouth. But the Hague was hardly interested in learning much more about his time in Massachusetts; instead, they were set on sorting out the atrocities committed in Sierra Leone.
The court’s conviction marked the first time that a former head of state was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity by an international tribunal since Adolf Hitler’s short-lived successor, Karl Doenitz.
Survivors of the war in Sierra Leone rejoiced at the sound of the gavel.
“The trial is very important to all victims because it will help to heal our wounds,” forced-amputation victim Jabati Mambu told the Toronto Star.
The reprieve did not last long.