Charles Taylor uses media hype to lobby for a prison transfer

Family man. EPA/Nic Bothma

The Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and Independent newspapers have all run with the story that Charles Taylor is suing the British government over his right to a family life, bringing him rather more media hype than he deserved. The BBC took a more nuanced tack, running with the headline Ex-Liberia President Charles Taylor in bid to leave UK prison.

Taylor’s demands to leave the UK prison seem to revolve around the right to see his family and his safety in a British prison. Given the saga of his arrest and conviction, it is uncertain if they will be received with any sympathy.

During his term as President of Liberia, Taylor was accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity as a result of his involvement in the Sierra Leone Civil War of 1991–2002. He was apprehended in 2006 by Nigerian authorities and appeared before the United Nation’s backed Special Court for Sierra Leone in Freetown, pleading not guilty to all charges.

As his presence in Freetown was considered a threat to peace and stability there, he was transferred to The Hague, where the trial was held by the Special Court for Sierra Leone using the courtroom facilities of the International Criminal Court and, later, of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

Taylor’s trial before the Special Court for Sierra Leone opened in June 2007, and after some twists and turns, the court found him guilty on 11 counts: war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international law which included murder, forced labour, recruiting child soldiers and rape. He was convicted for both planning and aiding and abetting these crimes. In September 2013, the Appeals Chamber upheld both Taylor’s conviction and his 50-year sentence.

Pursuant to a request by the president of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, in October 2013 Taylor was transferred from The Hague to the UK to serve the remainder of his 50 year sentence at HM Prison Frankland, a category A men’s prison located in County Durham.

The UK’s acceptance of that request picks up the thread of a foreign policy that saw British forces intervene in Sierra Leone in 2000, and given the Blair government’s then-clear commitment to foreign policy “with an ethical dimension”, taking on the cost of Taylor’s imprisonment honours the full implications of that unusually successful foreign intervention.

But Taylor seems unhappy with the prison’s location and conditions, claiming that it infringes his right to a family life – and that his own life is under threat.

Speaking to the BBC, Taylor’s lawyer alleged that due to visa issues, his family could not visit him in prison, and that in any event the climate was too cold and the food too different for his family. (It should be noted that his family did visit him in The Hague, whose weather and food are of course rather more akin to the UK’s than to Liberia’s.) But conditions in the Scheveningen prison are reportedly less restrictive than those in the UK.

Notably, however, Taylor’s lawyer also explained to the BBC that he is not suing the British government, nor seeking damages from the UK. Instead, the solution proposed is that Taylor serve his prison sentence in Rwanda to be closer to his family. That, his lawyer pointed out, would be cheaper for the British taxpayer.

To international crim­inal lawyers, a request to serve a prison sentence in Rwanda must sound more than a little ironic. Not many years ago, both the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia were criticised for sending offenders to Western detention facilities that were “too comfortable”, as prison conditions in their home countries would be far harsher.

And quite why Taylor might think he would be safer in a Rwandan prison than in the UK is unclear. He is not being subjected to unusually harsh conditions by British standards. A Ministry of Justice spokesperson is reported to have said that Taylor “is being treated in accordance with the United Kingdom’s obligation and in the same way as any other prisoner in England and Wales”.

(That said, for its part, the Guardian pointed out that convicted war criminal Radislav Krstić, a Bosnian Serb who was serving a 35-year sentence in Wakefield prison for his involvement in the Srebrenica massacre, was stabbed in his cell by three Muslim inmates in 2010.)

The Foreign Office confirmed that “a motion has been filed with the Residual Special Court for Sierra Leone”, requesting Taylor be transferred to a prison in Rwanda.

As the original post-war court is no longer operational, this Residual Court is responsible for supervising the enforcement of sentences and to guarantee the rights of those convicted. It will be interesting to see what it makes of President Taylor’s latest legal step.

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