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Seeking Justice for Liberia: Reflections of a Prosecutor
Seeking Justice for Liberia: Reflections of a Prosecutor

JURIST Contributing Editor David Crane of Syracuse University College of Law says that the conviction and sentencing of former Liberian president Charles Taylor by the Special Court for Sierra Leone should not keep justice from being sought against him for crimes committed against his own people…

I watched the helicopter hover over the landing zone next to Lumley Beach near Freetown, Sierra Leone. It was my birthday and it was pouring rain. The craft settled on the pad, its blades slowing. Members of my investigative office watched intently as the back ramp of the helicopter opened. Standing next to me was my chief of investigations, Alan White. He turned to me and grimly smiled, “Happy birthday.” He and his team moved forward to retrieve from the helicopter the body of Samuel “Mosquito” Bockarie, so-named as he enjoyed drinking the blood of his victims during the Sierra Leone civil war. His boss and mentor, then-President Charles Taylor, sent me his body on my birthday, May 29, 2003. I demanded the body when I learned that Bockarie had been killed “resisting arrest” after I publicly called on Taylor to hand over Bockarie alive to be tried on an international indictment for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

We would learn later during the autopsy of the remains that Bockarie had been shot, most likely by a firing squad of five gunmen. He was struck five times in the chest around his heart, ending the life of one of those who, as battle group commander of the infamous Revolutionary United Front (RUF), bore the greatest responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity. We also learned that Taylor had ordered the deaths of Bockarie’s entire family during those fateful days. We never found the bodies.

I publicly unsealed Taylor’s indictment just a few days after receiving my special birthday gift on June 4, 2003, causing him to be removed from power in disgrace as an indicted war criminal — a fitting response to his birthday gift to me indeed. Jumping ahead nine years almost to the day, Taylor has now been sentenced to 50 years of imprisonment for aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone.

This vignette is a small footnote in the ten-year horror that was Sierra Leone, of which Taylor played such an important role along with his fellow presidents: Muammar Gaddafi and Blaise Campore. This joint criminal enterprise saw the destruction and forcible displacement of millions of human beings. Many of these victims died in unspeakable ways. Taylor’s “gift” demonstrates the callous disregard to life and humanity that was pervasive during his reign of terror.

As this dark chapter in the history of Sierra Leone closes, it is now also time to consider justice for the people of Liberia who suffered terribly under Taylor. He allegedly destroyed tens of thousands of his own citizens. They, too, deserve justice and an accounting. Though I do not contemplate another international trial, I do believe an internationalized domestic court in Liberia could be a viable model to bring those accountable for destroying Liberia in the 1990s to justice. This cannot be overlooked, despite the desire to do so. Just because Taylor has been fairly and openly tried, convicted, and sentenced before the world for what he did to Sierra Leone does not give the international community, or the Liberian government, a pass on seeking justice for Liberia. A considered process needs to begin soon.

As I stated in my opening statement [PDF] in the joint criminal trial of the leadership of the Civil Defense Force:

A people have stood firm, shoulder to shoulder, staring down the beast, the beast of impunity. The jackals of death, destruction, and inhumanity are caged behind the bars of hope and reconciliation.

It is now time to put those who destroyed Liberia behind those bars.

David Crane is a Professor of Practice at Syracuse University College of Law. He teaches international criminal law, international humanitarian law and national security law. He was the founding Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone from 2001-2005. Crane served over 30 years in the US federal government, holding numerous key managerial positions and also serving as the Waldemar A. Solf Professor of International Law at the US Army Judge Advocate General’s School.

Suggested citation: David Crane, Seeking Justice for Liberia: Reflections of a Prosecutor, JURIST – Forum, June 3, 2012,

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