Liberia: War Crimes Implications of UK Probe Lingers as Agnes Taylor Returns

Since the case never went to trial, no witnesses or victims ever got to testify against Agnes Taylor.  This means that the merits of the allegations against Agnes Taylor, as well as the credibility and reliability of the victims/witnesses, were not challenged by the court decision. On the contrary these important elements remain untested.

Monrovia –  Last weekend’s return of Agnes-Reeves Taylor, ex-wife of former Liberian President Charles Taylor is ruffling feathers within the former president’s National Patriotic Party, with a feuding faction, led by Rep. James Biney, already trumpeting her as “The real mother” of the NPFL, in silent jabs at former First Lady Jewel Howard-Taylor, the current vice President, and head of the NPP.

Her return comes just seven months after her release from a UK prison, where she faced trial over a series of torture charges against her, relating to offenses allegedly committed during the Liberian civil war in 1990.

After a lengthy investigation, Reeves-Taylor was freed in December 2019 after an Old Bailey judge dismissed the case, saying she could not be charged with torture, because the prosecution did not provide enough evidence to the court she was “acting in an official capacity” at the time.

Legal experts say, the former president’s ex got off because of a legal technicality. 

Does this mean that the Court did not believe the witnesses/victims who spoke about crimes that Agnes Taylor allegedly committed?

No. Since the case never went to trial, no witnesses or victims ever got to testify against Agnes Taylor.  This means that the merits of the allegations against Agnes Taylor, as well as the credibility and reliability of the victims/witnesses, were not challenged by the court decision. On the contrary these important elements remain untested.

Does this mean Agnes Taylor is innocent?

Legal experts say, No. It simply means that the case never went to the trial stage because of the legal issues noted above.  In fact, the UK Court noted in its judgment dismissing the charges against Agnes Taylor that she did not dispute, when she applied for the charges against her to be dismissed (direct quote from UK Court judgment):“that there is prima facie evidence[1] that she held a high rank in the NPFL and (…) carried out, whether personally, or by giving orders, or by acquiescing in, the acts of torture (…) which took place in, or on the border of, Nimba County.”

Additionally, the UK law Agnes Reeves-Taylor was charged under only applies to people involved in acts of torture who were “acting in an official capacity” at the time.

This, legal experts say, implies that they must have worked for the government or been members of a rebel group that had a certain kind of authority / control over the area where the alleged crimes occurred.

The former president’s ex was charged for offenses allegedly committed in 1990 in certain areas of Nimba county.

Some courts in the UK thought that the kind of authority or control the NPFL had in Nimba at the time Agnes Taylor was allegedly involved in acts of torture was sufficient to send her case to trial. However, the highest UK Court had a slightly different understanding of the kind of authority / control that is required under that particular UK law. Because of that, the UK judge that was hearing her case had to reconsider whether she could be prosecuted under that law.

Ultimately the judge decided that the evidence the UK prosecutors had provided the court was not enough to prove that the NPFL had the required level of authority / control in Nimba at the time of the alleged crimes, in order for Agnes Taylor to be prosecuted under that law.

Said the judge: “(…) I have asked myself in relation to each Count (…) whether there is sufficient evidence, taken at its reasonable heighest, upon which a jury could properly conclude that, at the time and location of each offence, the NPFL was exercising governmental function in the relevant area. In my view the answer, in each instance, is clearly in the negative.”

There is another UK law under which any person (not only people “acting in an official capacity”) may be prosecuted for torture, but because it only came into legal force in 1991, Agnes Taylor’s alleged involvement in torture in 1990 cannot be prosecuted under that law. The law cannot be applied to crimes that occurred before it came into legal force.

Legal experts note that the crimes that Agnes Taylor allegedly committed could qualify as war crimes and crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, they could not be charged as such under UK law. Like the broader definition of torture described above (applying to all persons) which came into force only in 1991, these crimes did not exist in UK domestic law at the time of the events in question.

In the final analysis, Agnes Taylor could still be prosecuted for her alleged involvement in torture, as well as other alleged crimes, if a country that has the authority to prosecute her has a law enabling it.

Since July 2009 when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia (TRC) presented its final report containing findings, determinations and recommendations made by the Commission to the National Legislature, very little have been done to implement its findings.

The report contains major findings on: the root causes of the conflict, the impact of the conflict on women, children and the generality of the Liberian society; responsibility for the massive commission of Gross Human Rights Violations (GHRV), and violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), International Human Rights Law (IHRL) as well as Egregious Domestic Law Violations (EDLV).

The report also determined and recommended that Criminal Prosecution for these violations, Reparations and a “Palava Hut” Forum is necessary and desirable to redress impunity, promote peace, justice, security, unity and genuine national reconciliation.

Findings and recommendations of the report and a summary of the major findings, determinations and recommendations will be published in at least three major local daily newspapers shortly.

The TRC was agreed upon in the August 2003 Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Accra and created by the TRC Act of 2005. The TRC was established to “promote national peace, security, unity and reconciliation,” and at the same time make it possible to hold perpetrators accountable for gross human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law that occurred in Liberia between January 1979 and October 2003.

Former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf one of several officials named in the report and recommended to be banned from politics failed to jumpstart the process. In 2010, she requested the Law Reform Commission to work with the Ministry of Justice to consider all legal implications, including the Constitution and relevant Statues regarding the implementation of the TRC recommendations.

Her successor, President George Manneh Weah has been inconsistent in his approach.

Last September, the president, in a letter to the legislature, wrote:

“I … do hereby call on the National Legislature to advise and provide guidance on all legislative and other necessary measures towards the implementation of the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] report, including the establishment of the Economic and War Crimes Court.”

Adama Dempster, head of the Civil Society Organization, Human Rights Advocacy Platform of Liberia and the Secretariat for the Establishment of a War Crimes Court in Liberia hailed the president’s decision as a major benefit to the victims, the country, and the rule of law in Liberia. “President Weah’s support for a war crimes court is an important step for victims and for helping to ensure the violence that brought so much pain and loss to Liberia will not happen again,” Dempster said.

Those hopes were short-lived when President Weah, cast uncertainty over his support for the establishment of war and economic crimes court in the country, stating that his government has never called for the courts.

Following his return from the United Nations General Assembly last October, the President that instead of his government focusing on the establishment of war and economic crimes court, he’s more concerned about finding a way to fix the already crumbling economy. “Since we came to power, I have never one day called for the War Crimes Court. You the journalists called for War Crimes Court, Liberians are calling for war crimes court, both the victims and perpetrators are calling for war crimes court,” said President Weah.

President Weah had earlier told world leaders at UNGA that his government is a “listening administration” and will pay keen attention to its people as it relates the prosecution of people accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

He said at UNGA: “What I have discerned from their cries is that it is important to bring closure to the wounds from the 14 years of Liberia’s brutal civil war, and that we need to agree on a mechanism that would guarantee the sustenance of peace, stability, justice, and reconciliation, as well as enhance our prospects for economic recovery.” 

In his address, President Weah also expressed concern about the incessant pressure piling on his administration for the establishment of War and Economic Crimes Court as compared to his predecessor, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.