For more than two years, a recurring scene has played out in an antiseptic courtroom in The Hague. Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia—looking natty in bespoke suits and gold-rimmed eyeglasses, his hair salt-and-pepper—has listened as witnesses have bandied charges and countercharges about horrific crimes that prosecutors allege were committed with Taylor's complicity in neighboring Sierra Leone in the 1990s.
In that decade, Taylor's Liberia was a hub from which violence radiated out through West Africa. His charismatic manner and the grisly crimes his forces were accused of drew international attention. After he began an insurrection with a small band of soldiers in 1989, years of civil war eventually resulted in Taylor's election as the country's president in 1997. (His supporters were said to have chanted: "He killed my ma, he killed my pa, I'll still vote for him.") Taylor didn't invent child soldiering, but he certainly put his own spin on it with his Small Boys' Unit, his personal protection force of devoted, AK-47-armed orphans. It's been estimated that wars Taylor started or helped to fuel resulted in 300,000 deaths.
The prosecution now charges that Taylor wreaked havoc in the region in order to get his hands on some of Sierra Leone's notorious blood diamonds. Taylor was indicted in 2003 by the U.N.-backed court charged with trying those with "greatest responsibility" for the crimes committed during the war in Sierra Leone. That year, with Monrovia besieged by rebel forces seeking to unseat him, Taylor agreed to asylum in Nigeria. He was finally arrested and shipped to The Netherlands in 2006.
For most people, the story ended there. But although Taylor's trial moves at a pace that makes the O.J. Simpson proceedings seem speedy, it is far from staid. The proceedings have unfurled a series of grotesque allegations, bizarre accusations, and unexpected celebrity cameos. In the process, the trial has exposed some of the seamier American connections to a gruesome era in West Africa and the country founded in 1847 by returned slaves.
Beginning in January 2008, the prosecution—led by two diligent, dry American lawyers—spent 13 months sketching a web of connections between Taylor and the rebels in Sierra Leone. Taylor, the prosecution alleged, had buddied up with Foday Sankoh, the now-deceased leader of Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front, in Libya in the late 1980s, when both were guests at one of Muammar Qaddafi's training camps. Once back in West Africa, the prosecution claimed, the duo joined together to vacuum up the region's resources while their forces raped, pillaged, and chopped off hands.
The prosecution case depends on proving two things: first, that crimes were committed in Sierra Leone; second, that Taylor had direct involvement in their execution. Of the 91 witnesses called by prosecutors, some of the most disturbing testimony came from Joseph "Zigzag" Marzah, one of Taylor's former Liberian militia commanders. Much of Marzah's time on the stand was spent establishing that Taylor was a truly horrible leader of Liberia. Marzah described roadblocks adorned with human intestines and severed heads and said Taylor had ordered a pregnant woman to be buried alive behind the presidential palace for a sacrifice. He also claimed that Taylor had ordered his Liberian soldiers to eat their slain enemies in order to instill fear in the population. Marzah detailed how human bodies were prepared. "We lay you down, slit your throat and butcher you," Marzah said, "put it in a pot and cook it." Salt and pepper, he explained, are added to taste.
Importantly for the prosecution, Marzah linked Taylor to the war next door, stating that Taylor had him shuttle weapons from Liberia to Sierra Leone to exchange with the rebels for diamonds. The prosecution also connected Taylor to the neighboring war through a radio operator who testified that he had relayed direct commands from Taylor to a Sierra Leonean rebel commander.
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