Monrovia, Liberia – A British judge has dismissed a series of charges against Agnes Reeves Taylor, the former wife of jailed ex-Liberian President Charles Taylor.
Reeves Taylor, 54, had been due to face charges of torture and conspiracy to commit torture during the early years of Liberia‘s 14-year civil war period at the United Kingdom‘s Old Bailey criminal court. She has remained in custody since her arrest in 2017 and has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
The trial had been on hold after her lawyers lodged an appeal at the Supreme Court over her status – or otherwise – as a “person acting in an official capacity”: a requisite to try a defendant for torture under international humanitarian law.
The appeal proved successful and the charges were dropped on Friday due to a lack of evidence that her then-husband’s forces had been exercising governmental authority in the areas where the crimes were reportedly committed.
Among the eight charges brought against Reeves Taylor were the torture of a child, who was allegedly tied to a tree and forced to witness several shootings, and complicity in rapes committed by members of Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia. The incidents reportedly occurred between 1989 and 1991.
A former close affiliate of the Taylor family in the central Liberian town of Gbarnga, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, recalled witnessing a dozen acts of torture carried out under Reeves Taylor’s orders during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“In my presence, she did a lot of cruel things,” he alleged. “She had men under her control who tied up and tortured people, beating them mercilessly to death.
“She was always in military uniform with guns,” the source continued. “She should not be exonerated.”
Reeves Taylor, who has spent much of her time since the early 1990s in the UK and lectured at Coventry University, was arrested at her home in East London by the Metropolitan Police in June 2017 based on information supplied by the Swiss NGO Civitas Maxima and the Liberia-based Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP).
“This is a devastating development for us and the victims,” said Hassan Bility, executive director of the GJRP. “We wanted both the accused and the victims to have a chance to go through a judicial process.”
Although Reeves Taylor’s case has attracted limited interest in Liberia, supporters of both her and her ex-husband – who retains a high level of popularity despite his 50-year prison sentence for war crimes committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone – had condemned her arrest.
“She has been arrested arbitrarily and jailed for no obvious reason,” said E Frederick Baye, executive chairman of the Patriotic Consciousness Association of Liberia (PACA) organisation.
“She has committed no crime in Liberia. This is just a witch-hunt for the Taylor family.
“No investigation in Liberia showed involvement in torture or civil conflict. Her arrest was an interference with the Liberian judicial process and we think it was wrong.”
But the GJRP’s Bility countered: “With the lack of willingness or ability to conduct these trials in Liberia, we will still go ahead with our work.
“This case was dismissed purely on a technicality and there was no judgement. But it shows the system is fair and we are advocating for the same system for a war crimes court in Liberia.”
The long fight for justice
Sixteen years since the war ended, there have been a handful of cases against suspected Liberian war criminals abroad, but no one has yet faced justice on the country’s soil for involvement in a conflict that killed some 250,000 people.
Pressure has been mounting within Liberia for the establishment of a war and economic crimes court since President George Weah took office in January 2018.
Weah’s messaging on the establishment of a war crimes court has been ambivalent, but in a speech made at the United Nations General Assembly in September he called for international support during domestic consultations on the matter.
On October 4, a resolution calling for a war and economic crimes court was submitted to the House of Representatives bearing the signatures of 50 of its 73 members. The resolution is expected to be considered at a plenary sitting early next year before being forwarded to the Senate for approval and onward transmission to Weah to sign into law.
This has prompted accusations of economic mismanagement and corruption directed at the Weah administration, linked to a widespread belief that officials lack accountability and operate with impunity.