Charles Taylor Verdict Spurs Anger From Liberians

In an historic judgment, the UN-backed court at The Hague found Liberia's former president, Charles Taylor, guilty of war crimes. He was convicted of abetting murder, rape, and the forced enlistment of child soldiers during Sierra Leone's civil war. Host Michel Martin talks about reactions in Liberia and Sierra Leone with journalist Tamasin Ford.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we turn to the West African nation of Liberia, where residents are reacting to the guilty verdict in the war crimes trial of their former president, Charles Taylor. Taylor had been on trial at the UN-backed court in The Hague for almost five years. He was accused of backing rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone during that country's civil war by selling them weapons in exchange for diamonds.

It was a dramatic trial. There was graphic testimony about gruesome atrocities, mass rapes, amputations, cannibalism and information about the tens of thousands of people killed during the decade-long war.

Internationally known model Naomi Campbell even reluctantly took the stand at one point, describing an encounter with Charles Taylor, after which he allegedly gifted her with a diamond in the rough.

Judges say Taylor knew about the crimes rebel troops were committing, but prosecutors could not prove that Taylor was actually commanding those troops. Still, the judgment is the first of its kind against a world leader at The Hague.

We wanted to hear more reaction from Liberia, so we called Tamasin Ford. She's a freelance reporter who's based in Liberia's capital, Monrovia.

Tamasin, thanks so much for joining us.

TAMASIN FORD: Thank you.

MARTIN: Can you tell us: What's the mood there after the news broke about the verdict?

FORD: Well, it's one of anger, really - maybe naively. But before the verdict was being delivered, there was a huge sense of excitement, people with posters saying, our Papi is coming home. That's the name that people fondly refer to Charles Taylor as. And then, as the verdict came down and, of course, he was found guilty, the mood changed to anger.

The idea that their former president has been found guilty of crimes in another country's war - there are other people - meanwhile, Liberia was going through its own devastating civil war. And so there are also those people who feel that justice hasn't been done in Liberia.

MARTIN: That sounds very complicated. Are these - do these disputes fall along certain lines? For example, are there certain parts of the country that are more pro-Taylor than others, or is this really kind of house-by-house and very individual?

FORD: Well, it's quite across the board. In Bong County, which is in central Liberia, Taylor had his headquarters. So there is a very positive vibe for Taylor there. But generally, it's quite widespread, the support.

MARTIN: Tamasin, as you just told us, remembering that Mr. Taylor was accused of committing atrocities or directing atrocities across the border in Sierra Leone during that country's civil war, you visited Sierra Leone recently. How do people feel about him there?

FORD: It's very different in Sierra Leone, especially Freetown. There is the feeling that Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia, was the cause of their war. Thousands of people had their limbs amputated by the rebel group, RUF, Revolutionary United Front, which Taylor backed. And, in particular, these people, many of whom survived, feel that Taylor should face justice for what happened to them in Sierra Leone.

I spoke to Edward Conteh, the president of the Amputee and War Wounded Association in Sierra Leone, and this was just a few weeks ago, and these were his words.

EDWARD CONTEH: I want to see that fellow being locked up for the rest of his life and never breathe the free air that we do.

MARTIN: Tamasin, what accounts for such a very large difference of opinion about this man?

FORD: Well, in Liberia, you must remember, Charles Taylor was the former president. And at the time, he commanded a lot of respect and even adoration. He was very charismatic. He would go around the country. He was extravagant, handing out wads of money wherever he went. He also made sure rice, the staple food in Liberia, was cheap. So, war aside, there are many who feel that life was easier with Charles Taylor in power.

MARTIN: The trial happened at The Hague because Taylor was seen to be a destabilizing presence in the region, as - for reasons - all the reasons that you just told us. Are there any signs that this verdict will divide the country, that there will be some unrest in the wake of this?

FORD: Well, the government of Sierra Leone chose to do a lot of outreach in terms of the process of the court all across the country, keeping people up-to-date through video, through radio. In Liberia, the decision was not to do that. So Liberians generally haven't been following the trial and, really, the only time the trial surfaced here in the last two years since I've been here is when Naomi Campbell, the British supermodel, was testifying.

But I'm not sure there's an understanding of really what these charges meant in relation to Sierra Leone. For Liberians, it's simply that their president has been found guilty of another country's war.

MARTIN: Even though this verdict was not a complete victory for Taylor's accusers, will he ever walk freely again?

FORD: It's really unclear. It's difficult to say what sort of sentence they're going to decide on. I mean, I've heard legal minds talking about 40 or so years. This is a man who destabilized an entire region - Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Liberia, even Guinea. And the idea of Charles Taylor coming back to this region in West Africa is not one that people in the international community would consider, considering that peace is ensued in Sierra Leone and Liberia now for almost 10 years.

MARTIN: Tamasin Ford is a freelance reporter based in Monrovia. That's the capital of Liberia. And she's been following the trial of the former president of Liberia, recently convicted of war crimes trials at The Hague.

Tamasin, thank you so much for speaking with us.

FORD: You're welcome. Thank you.

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