The long arm of Charles Taylor versus the law
His trial may spell an end to the African Big Man, and new hope for a continent
MICHAEL PETROU | June 4, 2007 |
Sierra Leone's civil war first came to Ishmael Beah's village in 1991, when he was 10 years old and refugees began to stream through town. The children among them refused to meet anyone's eyes, and they jumped at the sound of chopping wood or stones bouncing off tin roofs. "It was evident that they had seen something that plagued their minds, something that we would refuse to accept if they told us all of it," Beah says. Three years later, he discovered what this was. While he and some friends were visiting a nearby village, the Revolutionary United Front, a rebel group that had launched the war by invading Sierra Leone from neighbouring Liberia, attacked their hometown and nearby villages. The RUF massacred almost everyone, but they sent a few survivors ahead with their fingers or limbs chopped off and the initials "RUF" carved on their chests with hot bayonets as a warning to others.
Beah fled into the jungle and would eventually survive the war. Tens of thousands of Sierra Leoneans did not. Most were civilians. The atrocities committed against women and children during the conflict were so savage that even to describe them feels obscene. Thousands were murdered, mutilated and driven from their homes. Women and girls were raped en masse. Their families were forced to watch or take part. The bellies of pregnant women were sliced open and the heads of fetuses were impaled on spikes for the amusement of visiting warlords.
Perhaps worst of all, the war -- with all its attendant horrors -- was fought in large part by children. The RUF made early and extensive use of forcibly recruited boys and girls. The boys were used as fighters and the girls as sex slaves, "bush wives," and camp workers. New recruits were often forced to murder their own parents before joining the rebels. This made them numb and vicious, as did witnessing the cannibalism practised by some of their leaders, and the cocaine and amphetamines that they constantly ingested. By the time British intervention helped defeat the RUF and end the war in 2002, countless children had been brutalized, one-third of Sierra Leone's population had been displaced, and as many as 200,000 people were dead.
Next month, Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia and the man many hold ultimately responsible for some of the worst horrors of the war, will face trial in The Hague at the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, which is tasked with trying those from both sides of the conflict who bear the "greatest responsibility" for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the conflict. The prosecution alleges that Taylor, first as the leader of a major armed group in Liberia, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, and then as his country's president, used the RUF and allied militias to take control of large swaths of Sierra Leone, especially its diamond-mining areas. It alleges that he had ultimate command of these fighters, that he armed and trained them, that they were loyal to him, and that he is therefore responsible for the "criminal means" they used to achieve and hold political power and physical control over the people of Sierra Leone.
"These criminal means involved the campaign of terror waged against the civilian population of Sierra Leone, including widespread and continuing killings, rapes, beatings and mutilations, enslavement of the civilian population for use as fighters, 'bush wives' and forced labour, looting and burning of civilian property. Children were used to carry out this criminal campaign and in active hostilities," reads the Office of the Prosecutor's pre-trial brief.
The case has enormous international implications. Almost 50 countries are funding the court, which is presided over by international and Sierra Leonean judges. Canada, one of the largest donors, has given more than $6 million, and has also contributed personnel. Human rights groups and NGOs are trumpeting the Taylor trial as a step toward ending the era of the untouchable African Big Man, of demonstrating that countries afflicted by the worst atrocities can confront their past, and that even heads of state can be held accountable for their actions.
Convicting Taylor, however, depends on finding members of his inner circle who are willing to testify against him. Many are missing, have mysteriously died, or are unwilling to take the stand. There is one man, however, who has known Taylor intimately for decades, lived in his home as a child, carried out his most important commands, and was privy to his innermost decisions. This man broke with Taylor in 2001 and has been on the run ever since, dodging assassins and living under assumed identities on three continents. His name is Cindor Andrea Reeves. He is a refugee claimant in Canada and a suspected war criminal. He was once Taylor's brother-in-law. He has agreed to tell his story to Maclean's.
Cindor Andrea Reeves is 35 years old, although he looks younger. He is tall and thin, with clear, dark skin. His facial expressions are subdued and calm, and he speaks in relaxed, measured tones -- only occasionally raising his voice or speaking more quickly to emphasize a point. But he appears to have reserves of bottled energy. His eyes are active, and he periodically opens and snaps shut a cellphone during an interview that takes place in a corner booth at a Tim Hortons somewhere in Canada. Reeves asked that his current location not be identified.
He says he first met Taylor when he was nine years old and Taylor married his sister, Agnes. It was 1981, and Taylor had just returned to Liberia after years of study in the United States to take a position in the new government of then-dictator Samuel Doe. Within a couple of years, Taylor was accused of embezzling more than $1 million, and fled back to the United States. He was arrested but escaped from jail and returned to Africa. Uncertainty surrounds his exact whereabouts over the next four years. He spent some time in Libya, where he received shelter and military training from Moammar Gadhafi. Then, in 1989, Taylor sent for Reeves to come live with him in Burkina Faso.
Reeves says that when he lived with Taylor, those around him considered Reeves to be the equivalent of Taylor's son. Reeves never thought of Taylor as his father, but he remembers that Taylor had complete control over the young members of his family and entourage. "In the same way that he would later use child soldiers, small boys, he used us," Reeves says. "Those small boys saw him as a god. For us, it was the same. If he told me to do something, I would do it without question. You would do it with confidence. You think, 'Oh, he likes me.' If Taylor says hello, you're happy for a month."
On Christmas Eve 1989, Taylor returned to Liberia at the head of his then-small guerrilla force in an attempt to overthrow the government of Samuel Doe. The National Patriotic Front steadily gained recruits and swelled its ranks with drug-crazed children who gained a reputation for ferocity as members of Taylor's infamous "small boys units." The NPFL soon controlled much of the country, but civil war continued to rage between Taylor's forces and rival armed groups. Taylor needed money; some of the most lucrative diamond fields in the world were right next door in Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone also backed the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group, which was preventing him from seizing control of the Liberian capital Monrovia. It was an attractive target.
The Revolutionary United Front attacked Sierra Leone from Liberia in March 1991. Its ranks included fighters from Taylor's NPFL and mercenaries from Burkina Faso. The RUF was led by a barely literate former corporal named Foday Sankoh. But Reeves confirms that ultimate control lay with Charles Taylor in next-door Liberia. "He created the RUF. He funded and trained the RUF. He appointed commanders. He drew up plans for attack. He sent vehicles. Everything."
Reeves would know. He was made Charles Taylor's main envoy in Sierra Leone. Whenever Taylor wanted to speak with leading members of the RUF, Reeves would be sent to get them and bring them to Monrovia. He says he never took part in fighting, but he saw hundreds of amputee victims and RUF commanders guarded by children whose fanaticism made them more loyal than adults.
One of Reeves's other jobs was to coordinate the diamond pipeline that ran between Sierra Leone and Liberia. Diamonds flowed out of RUF territory in Sierra Leone, and weapons flowed in. This made Charles Taylor, who was elected president of Liberia in 1997 during a brief lull in his own country's fighting, powerful and extraordinarily rich. International arms dealers and shady businessmen from all over the world converged on Liberia to purchase diamonds. Reeves would meet them at the airport and arrange their accommodation, protection, and transportation to the diamond fields of Sierra Leone. These buyers came to include Arabs willing to pay top dollar to secure as much merchandise as possible. Reeves arranged a guest house for one such group, whose members plastered the walls with posters of Osama bin Laden and watched videos of Palestinian suicide bombings.
Two months after the Sept. 11 attacks, when Washington Post reporter Douglas Farah showed Reeves photographs of suspected terrorists wanted by the FBI, Reeves recognized three of the men from their diamond-buying visits. They were, in fact, al-Qaeda operatives Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, wanted for their role in the August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. It was then clear that al-Qaeda was converting cash assets into diamonds in preparation for an impending crackdown on its financial networks.
Reeves was angry at Taylor's connection to a terrorist group that had attacked the U.S., but he had already begun to turn against Taylor, driven, he says, by a desire to end the civil wars still being fought in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Reeves describes his transformation from someone who blindly followed Taylor to someone who sought to undermine him as a slow process of awakening. "The problem is that when I started all this, I was living in the dark," he says. "When I was living with Taylor, there were certain TV channels I couldn't watch, books I couldn't read. As I got older and went to other countries, I saw people living peacefully. I started to learn that these things, raping women, these things were wrong. But you couldn't tell Taylor this. I saw other people say these things to Taylor, and they were dead."
Reeves began gathering documents that implicated Taylor in criminal activities in the mid-1990s. A few years later, after a journalist put him in touch with the NGO Global Witness, he began secretly reporting details about another of Taylor's illegal activities, lucrative timber exports. "It was very, very risky. Even if I got killed in the process, I didn't care. There was so much suffering and carnage," he says.
The final break came in 2001. Details of a confidential meeting between Taylor and some of his most trusted colleagues appeared in a newspaper. Taylor incorrectly thought that Reeves was the source, and Reeves fled the country. "Taylor had people trying to kill me all over west Africa," he says. By this time, the Special Court for Sierra Leone had been established, and although an indictment for Taylor had not yet been publicly unsealed, he was already covering his tracks. "There were three or four of us who were running diamonds," Reeves says. "I'm the only one left alive."
Reeves says that officials from the Special Court contacted him in Ghana in 2002. They presented him with false identity papers, including a Dutch passport, and flew him to the Netherlands, where he was placed in a witness protection program under a new identity. He lived in Europe for several years, first in Holland and then in Germany, and believed he was safe.
Meanwhile, Taylor had bowed to international pressure and resigned in 2003, living in exile in Nigeria for three years before its government agreed to release Taylor to stand trial. Taylor tried to slip out of the country and was arrested and turned over to the Special Court in March 2006. Last summer, Reeves says that Taylor's men caught up with him in Paris, kidnapping him at gunpoint and driving him two hours out of the city. When the car stopped at a red light in a small town, Reeves bolted from the vehicle and escaped.
Reeves now felt trapped. He believed that his cover was blown and his security compromised. The witness protection program wasn't keeping him safe. He couldn't go back to Africa. He made a fateful decision. Reeves gathered his family and, without informing anyone from the Special Court for Sierra Leone, flew them to Canada.
Immigration officials at Toronto's Pearson International Airport hear all kinds of dubious stories from people claiming asylum. So it must have surprised them when a lanky man with seemingly legitimate papers from the Netherlands declared that his passport was a forgery and that he was a former intimate associate and brother-in-law of an indicted war criminal. Reeves says he told the officials everything. He also handed over a business card belonging to a prosecutor from the Special Court so the Canadians could check out his story. He says he was then detained for 45 days but was eventually released while his case is considered.
On the surface, Reeves's chances of staying here don't look good. A Jan. 26 letter to Reeves's lawyer from a hearings officer in the war crimes and public security unit of the Canada Border Services Agency outlines the potential case against him. "There are serious reasons to consider that Mr. Reeves may have aided and abetted in the commission of the above-mentioned war crimes and crimes against humanity," it says, referring to allegations against Taylor. "Given the participation of the client, there are serious reasons for considering that Mr. Reeves may be complicit in war crimes and crime[s] against humanity and therefore subject to the exclusion under 1F(a)of the Refugee Convention."
Reeves, however, is not a routine refugee claimant with a murky past. He is a potentially explosive witness in one of the most high-profile international trials in years. As a man who was once one of Taylor's most trusted insiders, his testimony could put the former president behind bars for life. Reeves is also willing to testify. He wants to testify. But he won't travel to The Hague unless Canada guarantees he will be allowed back.
Reeves stresses that this is not blackmail. If necessary, he says he will testify by video link from Canada. Nevertheless, he is convinced that the Special Court has the ability to make a deal with Canada that will guarantee his safe return to the country. After all, he says, when the Special Court flew him out of west Africa, they provided him with a Dutch passport and a new identity.
Peter Andersen, chief of press and public affairs at the Special Court, told Maclean's that court officials cannot confirm or deny the names of any witnesses. While reluctant to talk about operational details involved in protecting witnesses, he noted that very few have been relocated outside of Sierra Leone. Reeves says he has been in contact with Special Court officials since his arrival in Canada, and produced the business card of a senior investigator as proof. He says that as "the No. 1 witness," he expects to be called to testify late in Taylor's trial. For the time being, he and his wife and children are growing comfortable here. They'd like to stay.
On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, final preparations for Taylor's trial are under way. The court has a new prosecutor in Stephen Rapp, an Iowa native and the former chief of prosecutions at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. A soft-spoken man, Rapp still gives the impression that he is motivated by his task. "This is the most exciting work that I've ever done," he said in an interview with Maclean's. "This is an opportunity to be part of a movement to bring justice to bear on the greatest crimes committed by humankind."
Nevertheless, Rapp and the prosecuting lawyers face numerous challenges. The temporal jurisdiction of the case is after Nov. 30, 1996, a time frame that doesn't cover the early years of the civil wars in both Liberia and Sierra Leone. More seriously, however, Taylor has been indicted for crimes he allegedly committed in Sierra Leone -- a country he is not known to have visited during the conflict. Rapp isn't fazed. "This case has nothing to do with whether he chopped off any arms himself, whether he killed anyone personally, whether he was in Sierra Leone," he says. "Leaders at the highest level are rarely involved directly in committing crimes with their bare hands. But the allegations in our indictment, confirmed by the judges, on which we'll go to trial at The Hague, are that he bore responsibility for the crimes committed by his subordinates."
Rapp likens the legal case against Taylor to one against a Mafia don who is still responsible for the actions of his henchmen. The prosecution's case hinges on proving the links between Taylor, as the don, and the RUF as his brutish pawns in Sierra Leone. Rapp is confident the prosecution has the witnesses and the evidence to prove this connection. "There are literally 10 different ways that we can show his responsibility and find him guilty for what happened there, if the evidence is credited by the court," Rapp says.
Taylor's defence team isn't so sure. The lead counsel is Karim Ahmad Khan, a 37-year-old English barrister with extensive international experience, including at UN international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. A doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford, he comes across as someone who is grounded in British legal tradition. He has a polite and mildly formal manner of speaking and makes a point of declaring his respect for both the Special Court and his opponents on the prosecution. Khan says he was drawn to the Taylor case because of its impact and complexity. "It's a wonderful interface between international law, international criminal law, human rights and politics," he says.
Khan echoes Rapp's contention that the case will be won or lost on the connections that can be drawn between Taylor and the RUF. "We're not disputing the tragedy of Sierra Leone," he says. "The focus is going to be on the nexus. It's going to be on the linkage. On what basis, on what real evidence, is it that Charles Taylor, a head of a foreign state, who never set foot in the country, whose troops, whose armed forces, never set foot in the country, is criminally responsible for the acts done by other nationals, by Sierra Leoneans, in a neighbouring state? It seems to be quite a leap."
Khan then paraphrases a line from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar about shifting responsibility to others. "The fault is not in the stars, but in ourselves," he says. "Whether it seems to be easy for Sierra Leoneans to blame outsiders for all the problems that befell Sierra Leone, or whether those problems arose from Charles Taylor is a matter for the court to decide. But we say that these crimes had nothing to do with president Taylor."
That international expectations for the Taylor trial are so high partially reflects what a disappointment recent attempts to bring justice to bear against world leaders have been. Slobodan Milosevic used the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia as a soapbox for years, and then died before a judgment was rendered. Saddam Hussein was tried in an Iraqi court, but his tawdry execution tarnished the proceedings and even generated sympathy for the fallen tyrant.
Taylor's case has already generated its share of controversy, notably over the decision to hold the trial in The Hague instead of in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where other cases before the Special Court have taken place. The official reason is security concerns. It is widely understood, however, that Taylor is still politically explosive in west Africa, and that local leaders -- including Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the current president of Liberia -- wanted Taylor to stand trial somewhere else.
"The general understanding is that regional leaders wanted that resolution," Rapp told Maclean's. Rapp concedes that making a distant court's proceedings relevant to those who suffered through the Sierra Leone civil war will be "a challenge," but he stresses that the court is conducting outreach projects in Liberia and Sierra Leone to publicize the trial through school visits and radio and video clips. He believes that the project has been successful and that many people, even in remote areas, will follow the proceedings.
Fears that Taylor's presence in west Africa could provoke unrest do have substance. He might have been a thug, but so was the dictator his forces helped overthrow, Samuel Doe, who ruled Liberia for a decade before he was murdered in 1990. "There are people who love Charles Taylor, no matter what anybody says," says Justinian, a Liberian immigrant to Canada who asked that his real name not be used. Justinian fled Liberia in the early 1990s, "but not before seeing what went on under Taylor's control." He describes checkpoints staffed by Taylor's men, boys and girls, who shot anyone whose ankles bore marks that suggested they had once worn boots. On other occasions, Taylor's soldiers simply shot anyone they felt like.
Today, Justinian would rather forget Taylor entirely. "Going back to dwell on that is a waste of my time," he says. He's not the only one who feels this way. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, in an interview with Maclean's, claimed that Taylor's fate is "irrelevant to us. The media is very excited about Mr. Taylor. We just want to leave that era and put it behind us. And we wish the media would do the same."
Johnson-Sirleaf has practical reasons not to talk about Taylor. She is the first elected female head of state in Africa, and her presidency is in many ways a source of hope and optimism. It is also a lesson in messy, and perhaps necessary, political compromises. She herself was once an ally of Taylor and, as president, has sought to engage those implicated in Liberia's bloody recent history. She leads a fragile country and may believe it is prudent not to stir up the past.
Somewhere in Canada, however, there is at least one man who says he is determined to confront Liberia and Sierra Leone's terrible history, and his own role in it. Cindor Andrea Reeves says that when he was a young man growing up with Charles Taylor, Taylor didn't really understand him. He failed to recognize that Reeves was learning about the world, and that the more he learned, the more he rejected Taylor. "He underestimated me, because my thoughts were so fast," Reeves says. "I started to compare. How can people live peacefully elsewhere, while we ourselves were wreaking havoc on our own country? So I put myself on a mission. I wanted to right that wrong."
Since arriving in Canada, Reeves says he has been both bribed and threatened by associates of Taylor who don't want him to testify. He claims that John Richardson, Taylor's former national security adviser, offered him US$100,000 to keep quiet, and cautioned him not to allow himself to be used by white people seeking to bring Taylor down. When contacted by Maclean's, Richardson, currently in Liberia and subject to a UN Security Council travel ban, dismissed the allegation. "Mr. Reeves claims to know me very well and has called me by phone several times for help," Richardson said in an email. "Personally I don't recall the gentleman."
Reeves says he has also received emails that threaten his life and the life of his mother. He is still resolved to meet Taylor in court. "I want to see him. I want to face him. I feel brave that I can do that," he says. "Let him live. Let him regret. There were many people killed who never had the chance of a trial. I'm happy he is being given a fair trial. Whatever he gets will be the fate he deserves."
Ishmael Beah, the boy whose village was attacked by the RUF, did not escape the war unscathed. He was forced to become a child soldier in a pro-government militia and spent two years high on drugs, ambushing rebels and torturing captives. He buried men alive and once took part in a throat-slitting contest with some of his comrades to see who could kill a bound prisoner the quickest.
At the age of 15, Beah was rescued and rehabilitated by a UNICEF-supported centre. He now lives in New York and has written a book about his life: A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. Beah has closely watched the proceedings of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. He says he has personally come to terms with his own past, but he is pleased that those accused of brutalizing children by turning them into killers will face justice. "It's not really a question of forgiving, necessarily, rather than accountability," he says in an interview with Maclean's. "Of course I can forgive them, but I want there to be a mechanism that says if people do this to children, they will be held responsible. I want that to be carried out."
In his memoir, Beah recalls a riddle that a storyteller used to tell children in his village. A hunter finds a monkey. Just as he aims his rifle to shoot, the animal presents the hunter with an impossible choice, but one that would be recognizable to countless child soldiers who were forced to murder their parents. "If you shoot me, your mother will die, and if you don't, your father will die," the monkey says. The boys listening are asked what they would do if they were the hunter. Beah says he always avoided saying anything, but even at the age of seven he knew what his answer would be. He would shoot the monkey so it would never have the chance to put other children in the same predicament.