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.
Before his transfer to the UK, Taylor had written, on 10 October, to the registrar of the Special Court, Ms Binta Mansaray, a Sierra Leonean, asking to serve his sentence in Rwanda instead of Britain, but his request was dismissed by the president of the Court, Justice George Gelaga King, from Samoa. In the letter, Taylor stated that serving the sentence at the UN detention facility in Rwanda, “in my home continent of Africa, would be substantially more humane not only on my own account, but also on account of the impact on my family”.
Taylor cited the Courts’ own “Practice Direction” which stipulates that in designating a country where convicts of the Court should serve their sentences, the president of the Court should take into account “the marital status, dependants and other family relations of the convicted person, as well as the usual place(s) of residence of such relations; and when appropriate, the financial resources they have available to visit the convicted person”.
Taylor explained that most of his close relations, including his wife, and most of his children, reside in Liberia. “Travel for them to Rwanda is much less costly and easier than travel to the UK for several reasons… For example, Liberian and other African visitors to Rwanda can obtain visas on arrival at the Kigali airport.”
Moreover, as Taylor put it: “The financial resources of my family, especially given its size, are limited. I have requested the reinstatement of my pension from the Liberian government but have still not received any positive resolution. The consequence of these factors is that if I am incarcerated in the UK some family members will see me much less than if I were to serve my sentence in Rwanda. Many of my children would not be able to see me at all.”
It was against this background of Justice King’s intransigence, that when Taylor faced bad treatment on arrival in Britain, and also his wife and children’s visas were refused, his British barrister, John Jones, saw red and fired a strong letter asking Justice King, in not so diplomatic terms, to get his act together and immediately transfer Taylor from the UK to Rwanda, because, as he put it, Britain has proven that it “is not a suitable place for Mr Taylor to be imprisoned”.
Jones started his 16 January letter by referring to his earlier letter of 26 November 2013, in which he raised concerns about Taylor’s incarceration at HMP Frankland.
“Since that date,” Jones told Justice King, “there have been significant developments in Mr Taylor’s situation in respect of his entitlement to family visitation … We consider that these developments, taken with others in the past months of which you will be aware, clearly show that the UK is simply
not capable of, and should not be entrusted with, the continuing imprisonment of Mr Taylor.”
Barrister Jones reminded Justice King how Taylor had had regular family visits facilitated via diplomatic channels by the relevant authorities in The Netherlands while he was on trial in The Hague.
“The UK, by contrast, insists that Mr Taylor’s family must meet the necessary UK visa requirements prior to being able to visit [him]. This typically involves extremely stringent criteria under the Immigration Rules specifically designed to deter people from overstaying in the UK…Given that Mr Taylor is currently 66 and his term of imprisonment is 50 years, if current conditions continue, Mr Taylor is unlikely to have any physical contact with his wife and children for the rest of his life. This extraordinarily grave consequence could be avoided if Mr Taylor were transferred to the UNDF in Rwanda.”
Violation of the law
Barrister Jones looked at the available UK domestic and international laws with a bearing on Taylor’s imprisonment, and told Justice King that Britain’s refusal to allow Taylor family visits is in direct violation of at least four UK laws.
Jones continued: “That the UK authorities are prepared to open clearly legally privileged material to Mr Taylor, sent to him from a Queen’s Counsel, shows its inability even to meet its own fundamental rules. Mr Taylor should not be held in the estate of a country which has shown itself unable to ensure
the basic humane treatment which it is required to provide to him.
“I therefore respectfully request the [Court’s] intervention in this matter on an urgent basis. I also invite representatives of the [Court] and/or the Council of Europe’s Committee on the Prevention of Torture to visit Mr Taylor at the earliest opportunity.”
The final word in this saga belongs to Mrs Taylor. In her 10 December 2013 letter to the African Union, pleading with the African leaders to intervene in her husband’s case, she said her husband “is presently detained in conditions far worse than we could have expected.
“Although a senior person at almost age 66, evidently posing absolutely no danger to any other inmate, he has nevertheless been catalogued as a ‘Class A high-risk prisoner’. One of the absurd justifications offered for this classification was that he had arrived in the UK without a valid visa.
“Given the gravity of all these factors, the question reasonably arises whether designating the UK as my husband’s place of detention was not, in itself, intended to be a form of punishment. This would be contrary to all international instruments concerning the humane treatment of prisoners…”
To Mrs Taylor, the decision to send her husband to the UK, constitutes an unprecedented departure from the previous practice of three international courts – the ICTY, the ICTR, and the Special Court for Sierra Leone itself.
“The question that necessarily arises is: If the president of the Special Court has in the past deemed Rwanda to be the most suitable location of detention for previous convicts, then why is the situation different for my husband? Why is he the only African to serve his sentence outside of his own continent?
“My husband has a right to be treated equally under the law, and that includes equal and impartial treatment as compared with other convicted persons. On the contrary, my husband appears to have been singled out for special, and highly punitive, treatment.”
Mrs Taylor then told the AU heads of state: “I appeal to you, because we believe that the detention for the rest of his life in the UK appears to single him out for harsher treatment than any other Special Court convict, or indeed, [represents] harsher treatment than anyone else convicted before an international court.”