On 15 October 2013, the former Liberian president, Charles Taylor, was sent to Britain to begin his 50-year prison sentence imposed by the Special Court for Sierra Leone. But bad treatment at Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) Frankland, in northeast England, and the British immigration authorities’ refusal to grant his wife and children visas to visit him, have led to concerns being raised by his British barrister, who wants him transferred to Rwanda where, he believes, Taylor will receive appropriate conditions of imprisonment. Osei Boateng reports.
Britain “has shown itself incapable of holding” Liberia’s former president, Charles Ghankay Taylor, “in humane and appropriate conditions of imprisonment”, and therefore he “should be immediately transferred to the United Nations Detention Facility (UNDF) in Rwanda. This will comply with the basic norms and practices required by the UN,” says John Jones, the London-based Queen’s Counsel (QC) who is now handling Taylor’s legal affairs.
Taylor is the only person convicted by the Special Court to serve his term outside Africa, a “discrimination” which his wife, Mrs Victoria Addison Taylor, describes as an additional “highly punitive treatment” meant to aggravate the trauma of her husband’s already long sentence.
In a 10 December 2013 letter to the African Union, appealing to African leaders to intervene to save her husband from further indignities in the UK jail, Mrs Taylor wondered if her husband’s transfer to Britain instead of Rwanda was “because certain powerful countries, one of which is Sierra Leone’s former colonial authority [i.e. Britain], would wish to ensure harsher conditions of detention for the former Liberian statesman.”
Taylor was categorised as a “Class A high-risk prisoner” and put in a maximum security prison where strip searches, isolation, and other restrictions are common.
“This detestable regime,” Mrs Taylor said in her appeal letter to the AU, “is particularly difficult, considering [my husband’s] exemplary record in detention throughout Court time at The Hague. The frequent failure to take account of his personal circumstances [in Durham] can only be a reflection of prejudice or racism.”
Mrs Taylor and her children applied for the visas in late November, intending to spend Christmas with their imprisoned husband and father, but they only got their passports back on 9 January 2014 with “refused” stamped all over them.
As it turned out, the visa refusal was one thing too many for Taylor’s British barrister, John Jones. On 16 January 2014, he fired an 11-page letter to the President of the Residual Special Court for Sierra Leone (RSCSL), saying “the UK has a duty to ensure that Mr Taylor enjoys family visits, notwithstanding his incarceration to serve a 50-year sentence, and it has signally failed to do so. Nor has it shown itself capable of holding him in humane and appropriate conditions of imprisonment.”
Therefore, as Barrister Jones put it, “the initial discriminatory treatment meted out to Mr Taylor [by the president of the Special Court, Justice George Gelaga King] by sending him, alone of all the SCSL detainees, out of Africa to the UK, must be continued no longer.”
Taylor’s trial, and the preceding events leading to his 2006 arrest and transfer to the ICC facilities in The Hague (where a special session of the Special Court for Sierra Leone was arranged to try him), were driven from behind the scenes by the US and British governments (under George W. Bush and Tony Blair respectively).
It was no small matter that all the chief prosecutors of Taylor in The Hague were American, in fact American ex-military and ex-intelligence officers turned lawyers. And they had a big axe to grind – on behalf of their home government!
Experts with deep knowledge of Taylor’s background insist that he was an American project gone awry. At some point in time, the experts say, Taylor did not follow the Washington line and went his own way – an unpardonable crime Washington could not bring itself to forgive and conspired to remove him from power.
For example, on 8 December 2000, Mark Bellamy, an official of the African Desk at the State Department, drafted a classified memo on behalf of the secretary of state, titled “Liberia: Undermining Charles Taylor”, which was sent to the US embassy in Monrovia.
Marked “confidential”, the memo said in part: “[State] Department seeks Embassy’s assistance in developing information required to weaken and discredit the Taylor regime internationally. We view this as a long-term campaign, but one which we hope to launch with the imposition of UN sanctions on Liberia in January .
“The success of our efforts at the UN will depend in large measure on our ability to convince other UN members of what we already know – that Charles Taylor is instigating cross-border conflict, trafficking arms, looting resources (Liberia’s and neighbouring nations’) and, in general, sowing instability throughout West Africa … Demonstrating conclusively that Taylor is the driving force behind much of the violence and deepening human misery in the region is an important, ongoing USG [US Government] priority.”
The memo went further by asking whether there was “a democratic opposition to Taylor that can/should be supported? Who and where are they? Is it possible to envisage political alternatives to Taylor’s warlordism (or that of warlords who might succeed him?).”
Taken together, it meant that the effort to get Taylor out of power, or even behind bars where he now is, was a long-term American agenda which was pushed through the Special Court for Sierra Leone, whose activities, not surprisingly, were largely funded by the USA and Britain. However, in court, the kind of allegations contained in Bellamy’s confidential memo, and others in the same vein spread around about Taylor, could not be substantiated when his accusers had the chance to back up their claims with concrete evidence.
This led to Taylor being acquitted on the 11 main charges brought against him at the Court. But, rather amazingly, as he was found guilty on the lesser charge of “aiding and abetting” the Sierra Leonean rebels, the Court sentenced him to 50 years in prison. The political undertones of the trial have led to some unconscionable legal and other somersaults at the Court, which have meant that even clear-cut legal matters have many times become not clear-cut at all.
An example of this, is how Taylor has become the only convict of the Court to serve his term outside Africa. Even if this meant the Court had to break its own longstanding tradition and practices to keep Taylor in a UK jail, the end justified the means.