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Taylor Sentence Sparks Justice Debate in Liberia

  • Kate Thomas

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor listens to the judge at the opening of the sentencing judgement hearing at the court in Leidschendam, near The Hague, May 30, 2012.

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor listens to the judge at the opening of the sentencing judgement hearing at the court in Leidschendam, near The Hague, May 30, 2012.

DAKAR - The sentencing of former Liberian president Charles Taylor on Wednesday was heralded as an historic moment for Sierra Leone. But in neighboring Liberia, many say the justice and reconciliation process is only just beginning. As Taylor was handed a 50-year jail term, Liberian rights groups and activists were debating whether Taylor's allies and rivals should also be subject to international justice.

The sentencing of Charles Taylor for war crimes committed during Sierra Leone's conflict has sparked debate in the former leader's native Liberia.

Many Liberians did not follow the trial proceedings, believing that it was more relevant for Sierra Leoneans.

But others gathered around radios Wednesday as news of Taylor's 50-year jail term was read out.

The matter has sparked calls for other Liberians suspected of war crimes to be handed over to international courts. Liberia's media have run editorials and held radio debates on the advantages and disadvantages of the idea.

Larry Tengbeh, who lives in Monrovia, is among those who think Taylor should not be the only one held responsible for war crimes. "There are a number of them roaming around in Liberia. They need to face justice," he said.

He's talking about former rivals, and in some cases, allies of Taylor during Liberia's civil conflict, which ended in 2003, a year after Sierra Leone's.

At least five members of Taylor's wartime inner circle are still under U.N.-imposed travel bans and subject to economic sanctions.

Others had recommendations made against them by Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

But those recommendations, including one that President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf should be barred from public office for funding Taylor's pre-war rebellion in Liberia, have never been implemented.

There have been calls for Prince Johnson, Taylor's former rival who came in third in last year's presidential race, to be pursued for crimes against humanity.

In 1990, Johnson was videotaped drinking from a bottle of beer while soldiers loyal to him tortured the late President Samuel Doe.

"Other warlords like Prince Johnson who led another rebel group in Liberia, face the full weight of justice too. He must have his day in court for the killing of former President Samuel Kanyon Doe," said Tengbeh.

But Marpue Tarnue, a 35-year-old housewife, said the issue of pursuing justice should be put to rest.

"I think the people of Sierra Leone got the justice they had been looking for. The trial is over and it is time for the two countries to put the past behind them and move forward," she said.

Some feel that during Liberia's conflict, which left 300,000 people dead, many people came away with dirty hands.

They say that everyone became a part of the system of war, and that holding individuals responsible will prevent Liberia as a whole from moving beyond the conflict.

Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee is currently leading a reconciliation initiative in Liberia, backed by President Johnson-Sirleaf. But Liberians say the process, which focuses mostly on discussion, has been slow to get off the ground.

Teddey Morris, who has been following the trial, asks how Liberian reconciliation should be defined.

"Reconciliation is about forgiving and forgetting the past. A sentence of 50 years is not what you call reconciliation," he said.

In 2008, Liberian novelist Elma Shaw published a book called "Redemption Road."

It told the story of a Liberian girl, Bendu, who was abducted during the war and forced to marry a rebel fighter at a camp in the forest. It is a story that speaks to thousands of Liberian women who had similar experiences.

After the war, Bendu reflects on her time in the forest.

"For Bendu, forgetting was out of the question," Shaw writes, "but remembering and doing nothing about it was even worse."

The question, for Liberians, is just what should be done.

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