- - Monday, April 16, 2012

MONROVIA, Liberia — As judgment day nears in the trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor for war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone, many Liberians are wondering whether he will ever face justice for brutality in his own country.

“There were more atrocities that occurred in Liberia under [his] leadership as compared to that in Sierra Leone,” said Nathan F. Gull, a 33-year-old businessman in Monrovia.

Mr. Taylor, a former rebel leader, is best known internationally for his bands of drugged-up child soldiers who terrorized Liberians throughout the 1990s until 2003.

Fourteen years of civil war killed 250,000 people and left survivors coping with traumatic memories of massacres, rape, torture, forced conscription and cannibalism, according to testimony given to Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created in 2005 to investigate the conflicts.

Ethnic divisions that helped spark the civil wars remain, and 8,000 U.N. peacekeepers still patrol the West African nation.

In what was known as the First Liberian Civil War, Mr. Taylor led a rebel force that in 1990 overthrew and executed Samuel Doe, who grabbed power in a military coup 10 years earlier. Many observers agree that Mr. Taylor essentially terrorized the population into electing him president in 1997.

He stepped down in 2003 in the face of another armed uprising known as the Second Liberian Civil War, which broke out in 1999.

During his years as president, Mr. Taylor was accused of arming rebels in Sierra Leone in a civil war also known for massive atrocities.

Now facing 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, Mr. Taylor is awaiting an April 26 verdict from a three-judge international tribunal in the Netherlands, where he is in custody. He is expected to appeal a guilty verdict.

High-level suspects

Many Liberians will not be satisfied with a conviction for crimes committed in Sierra Leone. They want Mr. Taylor and other rebel leaders tried in Liberia.

“A lot of people who committed atrocities are still in government,” said Chris Samukar, who lost his brother during the wars.

Among the most controversial leaders is Prince Y. Johnson, the former head of the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia, a warring faction in the 1990s.

The truth commission named Mr. Johnson the worst perpetrator of war crimes, yet he serves in the Senate and chairs the Committee on National Defense, Intelligence, Security and Veteran Affairs.

Aaron Weah, a Liberian civil society activist, said the presence of war crimes suspects like Mr. Johnson in the government underscores the many challenges the nation faces in its pursuit of justice and reconciliation.

“It just shows that we are still far away from having any breakthrough. If Johnson presides over the national security committee of our country that is trying to reform the very security architecture he destroyed - that is a joke,” Mr. Weah said.

In its final report in 2009, the truth commission recommended that 120 people be prosecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The commission also listed 49 people who should be barred from politics for 30 years because of their suspected associations with warring factions.

Among those mentioned was the current president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who sent money to Mr. Taylor early on during the war. She claimed she helped finance his army “to challenge the brutality” of the Doe regime.

Mr. Weah and many others say the indictment of powerful members of the political establishment, such as Mrs. Sirleaf, has been the main reason why the report appears to have been shelved.

Dan Sayree, head of the Liberia Democratic Institute, said Liberia’s approach toward reconciliation is “a charade and deceitful.”

“If you want to reconcile people, [they] … must be convinced that they have justice,” he said.

‘Ugly head of the past’

The close of Mr. Taylor’s trial follows tense presidential and legislative elections last year that resulted in claims of electoral fraud. The opposition party, Congress for Democratic Change, boycotted the second round of voting, and demonstrations left one protester dead the day before the polls opened.

“The elections were a very beautiful example that no one can sidestep reconciliation,” said Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee, who serves as head of the Liberian Reconciliation Initiative, an independent body that will work alongside government organizations in the reconciliation effort.

“For six years we have sidestepped it, and when the time came for the election of leaders, the ugly head of the past rose up.

“We haven’t as a people been able to look that evil that brought the war in the eye and say, ‘This is it. This group is responsible, and this group has not come back to say, ‘Yes we are responsible.’ “

Elise Keppler, a senior counsel for Human Rights Watch’s International Justice Program, said prosecutions are essential.

“What we are seeing is a justice vacuum that puts Liberia in stark contrast with its neighbor Sierra Leone,” said Ms. Keppler, who worked on the U.N. Special Court for Sierra Leone and helped press for Mr. Taylor’s arrest.

“Trials for the gravest crimes and human rights violations committed are essential to making a serious break from the past, giving redress to the victims and to strengthening the rule of law.”

Still, the Sierra Leone trial will have broader implications for the region, she added.

“When it comes to West Africa, this is the first time a ‘big man’ has been forced to face trial for alleged crimes,” she said, “and that makes it an important day not just for Sierra Leone but for all of West Africa.”