The Supermodel vs. The Warlord
It was almost worthy of a Woody Allen flick: after three years in relative obscurity, the trial of Charles Taylor was all over the headlines, and it was Mia Farrow who put it there. Farrow had sworn that the former Liberian president—whose alleged support for Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front led to his arrest and indictment on eleven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity—wooed Naomi Campbell with a small taste of the RUF’s spoils. So the supermodel, her former agent and Farrow all took the stand. Suddenly the world was watching—but the spectacle only distracted from the questions that will decide Taylor’s guilt or innocence.
The press was spellbound: the supermodel brought “a whiff of unusual glamour” to the Special Court for Sierra Leone, swooned the New York Times. Campbell was cagey—whether out of fear for her family or her reputation, she refused to say that Charles Taylor had sent or even promised her the now nearly proverbial “dirty-looking stones,” which she says she promptly palmed off on an acquaintance and forgot about.
Those who know the history of the conflict well question whether they were ever worth remembering. Lansana Gberie is a Sierra Leonean reporter whose work with Partnership Africa Canada introduced the term “blood diamonds” into the global lexicon, and certainly no friend of Charles Taylor. “The focus on Campbell's testimony, if that is meant to explain the 'blood diamonds' issue,” Gberie wrote in an e-mail referring to the diamonds Taylor allegedly traded for arms and affection, “is frankly misleading and reductive. The new sensationalism is rather obscene.”
Gberie points out that “Liberia, over which Taylor lorded, is also a producer of rough diamonds. And if the diamonds were, as claimed by Campbell, small dirty-looking pebbles, then they could just as well have come from there.”
So the diamonds would seem to add little to the case against Taylor. The prosecution actually rested its case more than a year ago; it was allowed to place Campbell and company on the stand only because it seemed the new witnesses might impeach the credibility of Taylor’s own testimony (Taylor repeatedly denied ever having laid a hand on a diamond).
“When it comes to linking Taylor to the crimes he’s accused of,” said Jennifer Easterday, a trial monitor with the University of California, Berkeley’s War Crimes Study Center, “I think there have been many other witnesses who have provided testimony that will ultimately be more important to the prosecution’s case.”
In the end, the spectacle only diverted attention away from the dilemmas of credibility and historical authority that have come to shape the trial. Campell’s testimony actually interrupted that of defense witness Issa Sesay, the former interim leader of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). In February 2009, the Special Court convicted Sesay on sixteen of seventeen counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious violations of international humanitarian law.
In a trial that has featured the testimony of one wannabe warlord after another, Sesay is the highest-ranking official from any faction to take the stand; if Taylor had been running the RUF behind the scenes, Sesay would know. His testimony is perhaps the first time a convicted war criminal has testified on behalf of an accused one. However historically unusual, this isn’t the sort of hook that racks up pageviews.
On the stand, Sesay’s testimony has effectively corroborated much of Taylor’s version of events, as the defense team has walked him through the testimony of witness after witness and he’s denied many of the prosecution’s allegations, point by point. To the surprise of many students of the conflict, the prosecution argued that Taylor enjoyed direct command authority over the RUF, going so far as to appoint Sesay its leader at a late stage in the war. Sesay has denied this was the case, telling the court that Taylor was only one of several West African leaders who tapped him to lead the RUF in the interests of peace.
“Sesay was cajoled to accept leadership of the RUF,” writes Gberie, who authored one of the authoritative books on the conflict. “He was initially very reluctant, actually afraid to attempt it. But the UN, the Nigerian and Sierra Leonean governments persuaded him to do so, promising him full support. This they gave to him, and Sesay was very cooperative during the disarmament process.” When Sesay was arrested in Freetown in March 2003, the war criminal wept publicly, lamenting his role in the peace process.
As for where the RUF received its arms to begin with, Sesay has testified that while they did deal with one of Taylor’s lieutenants, they had no direct interaction with Taylor and the diamonds-for-arms trade simply never happened. Sesay has even specifically denied that a weapons shipment made after Taylor and Campbell met in South Africa was funded by the former. Did Taylor send medicine men to steel the RUF for an operation? “A black lie.” Did Taylor plan major assaults on Sierra Leone’s diamond boom-towns or the infamous 1999 attack on the capital, Freetown? “A bloody lie.”
How the judges will sort through these conflicting accounts is anyone’s guess. There are no receipts for those alleged diamond deals; in the end they will have to weigh the credibility of the war criminals who got caught against that of those who didn’t. “My decision to come here,” said Sesay, whom the Court sentenced to fifty-two years in a Rwandan prison, “is because I was sitting in my detention and listening to the radio and hearing people say lies about me just because I disarmed the RUF, so I decided to come here and testify. I have nothing to gain.” Reviewing Sesay’s testimony, Taylor’s conviction seems less like a foregone conclusion.
The afternoon after Campbell’s turn before the cameras, Sesay returned to the stand. The public gallery was, once again, nearly empty.