Liberia: Prosecuting Taylor

War criminals and human-rights violators often receive a different sort of justice than the rest of us. An exiled dictator can more reasonably expect to spend his final days in a Parisian chateau than a squalid cell. Stephen Rapp wants to change those expectations. As a U.N. prosecutor, first in Rwanda and now for the Special Court for Sierra Leone, he holds criminals accountable for their actions--even when they operate at the highest levels of power. His case against Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president accused of fomenting slaughter in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s, opened Jan. 7 with a diamond expert who testified that Taylor financed massacres from sales of the precious gems. Before the trial began, Rapp spoke by phone with NEWSWEEK's Barrett Sheridan from the airport in the Freetown. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What are the charges against Taylor?
Stephen Rapp:
Taylor was in effective control of the Revolutionary United Front rebels in Sierra Leone at the time that they were committing enormous atrocities across the country. He enabled the rebels to march into Freetown while conducting an operation called "Spare No Soul," and in the process cutting a swathe of destruction, murder, mayhem and rape across Sierra Leone.

Taylor was part of the planning of the operation, and he was an effective leader of these forces. At the very least, he knew that these forces were committing immense numbers of atrocities, and despite that knowledge he continued to provide vital aid and assistance, military arms, training, safe refuge in Liberia and in a whole variety of ways aided and abetted the commission of grave war crimes and crimes against humanity.

You have 62 witnesses against Taylor, so it sounds like you've built a strong case.
Actually, our case involves 62 linkage witnesses, which are witnesses to link Taylor to the crime. We have 77 other witnesses who are witnesses to the crime itself and 11 other expert witnesses. There are a total of 150.

Nonetheless, charges like these are difficult to prove. How confident are you in achieving a guilty verdict?
As a general rule, prosecutors don't give opinions about witnesses or evidence. But we have strong and compelling evidence that is sufficient to convict him of each of the 11 counts in the indictment--that's our submission, and that's what we're prepared to do.

Trials like these not only prosecute criminals, but help build legal institutions in struggling nations. Taylor's trial has been moved from Africa to the Netherlands. Will this dampen its impact?
We have mixed feelings about the case being in Europe. The prosecution didn't move to have the venue of the trial changed to Europe, and we've been very proud of the fact that we tried our other cases at the scene of the crime, in Sierra Leone--unlike the Yugoslavia and Rwanda tribunals. But in the case of Taylor, regional leaders were very concerned that his trial in Sierra Leone could be destabilizing to a region that was just coming out of a long civil war. It was their request that the court move the trial outside the region.

Sierra Leoneans have the most vested in the outcome. How will they be able to access a trial thousands of kilometers away?
The courthouse [in Freetown] will remain open for people to watch the trial on television, and there will be an intensified outreach program, including thousands of meetings across the country and monthly video screenings showing highlights of the trial. We're expanding that effort to Liberia, as well. It's certainly my highest priority to maintain a closeness between the trial in the Hague and the situation in Sierra Leone.

What would a guilty verdict mean for West Africa and for the world?
A fair trial for Charles Taylor would itself be a very important contribution to justice, whatever the end result. On the other hand, as prosecutors, we've prepared a strong and compelling case that supports a verdict of guilt, and we think that such a verdict would send a clear message that no man is above the law, and that the age of leaders who could commit great atrocities against their own people and the people of other countries, and essentially get away with it--that age is really over. That message, we think, can help deter future crimes and protect victims of suffering.

Kenya is the latest African country to boil over into violence. Does the Taylor trial have any implications for peace and justice in Kenya?
I think so. I think that people there are reflecting on [past judgments against human-rights violators] constantly, and it's having a restraining effect. Obviously it's not restraining as much as we'd like, but it's restraining the situation, at the moment, from becoming worse than it is. People who believe very much in human rights are very excited about the work of these courts and are seeing an impact in their countries.

Do people seem to believe that the work of international courts will create a more peaceful future?
I heard people in Darfur saying, "Who's going to stop this? Ocampo will stop this!" They're putting quite a lot on the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court [Luis Moreno-Ocampo]. But people now really are pulling themselves back and watching their tracks and perhaps not going to the extremes that they would otherwise.

In Sierra Leone itself, we just went through a very contentious election in which the incumbent president's party lost power and the opposition gained power--with no significant violence. I've talked to people, even those that at one time had negative views of the court, who said that the fact that those who commit violence have seen what's happened to others has caused them to pull back and let the process go forward peacefully.