International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

Was Charles Taylor’s verdict correct?

One of the judges from Charles Taylor’s trial in the Special Court of Sierra Leone this week publicly renounced the judgment against Charles Taylor, stating that there was not enough evidence to prove he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

As an alternate judge, Judge Sow was not allowed to speak for the court and thus not allowed to offer his dissenting opinion, even though he had witnessed every phase of the trial alongside the other judges. Some observers noted that he attempted to speak after the judgment was read, but his microphone was cut off. Afterwards, Judge Sow’s behavior was renounced by the court and he was barred from sitting in on future proceedings. At the time of the trial, a researcher noticed the absence of Judge Sow’s name on most of the SCSL’s documentation of the trial. 

A reporter tweeted a photo of Judge Sow’s notes for his statement. In his notes, Judge Sow wrote that he was afraid that “the whole system is under grave danger of just losing all credibility, and I’m afraid this whole thing is headed for failure.” 

In an article that will be published in New African magazine in December, Judge Sow said that the SCSL’s judges barely discussed their verdict and had contradictory evidence that he viewed as inconclusive.

International courts are a new project, and their rules and procedures are not always clear to all those involved. Judge Sow believed he was entitled to express his opinion, and many people probably agree with him. While the courts are still in the early stages of developing themselves, I think it’s important that they err on the side of impartiality – making sure all sides have had a chance to be heard, so the final decision can be trusted by the public as not predetermined, but honestly based on the testimony heard. The court’s firm stance on Judge Sow’s comments makes the court seem unwilling to hear dissenting points of view, which is detrimental to justice and the court’s reputation.

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3 responses to “Was Charles Taylor’s verdict correct?

  1. sarahupp14 November 25, 2012 at 9:03 pm

    Emmaline, first, your wide range of sources—from news articles to TwitPic—highlights the multifaceted nature of this situation. With voices coming from all directions (and, as evidenced by the TwitPic, nothing is “safe” from an industrious reporter), it must be difficult for SCSL authorities to keep the activities and opinions surrounding Judge Sow’s dissenting opinion from spiraling out of control and seriously jeopardizing the legitimacy of the court.

    That noted, to attempt to further unpack the complicated issue that you brought to light: Impartiality and the assurance of a fair trial are certainly key to any court’s credibility. If the “official” (as opposed to alternate) panel of SCSL judges were to formally renounce their verdict on the Taylor case, a notable precedent would be set. Alleged violations of due process in courts of transitional justice would go from being simple accusations against the courts to actual causes for the overturning of verdicts. Looking at the issue of credibility, however, I agree with you that the suppression of dissent on the part of the court detracts from the institution’s overall legitimacy in the eyes of two key groups: potential mass violators of human rights (whose actions the court is trying to deter) and the “general public”/international community. While the former group will view a lack of due process as means for denouncing the credibility of the court—and thereby potentially getting off without a sentence—the latter will view a denial of due process (and, perhaps more importantly, a lack of acknowledgement of the violation of said basic right) as a mark against support for future transitional justice endeavors in the form of courts.

    Looking just at the immediate situation, it might be attractive for SCSL authorities to continue to denounce Judge Sow’s (now public) dissenting opinion—after all, they want to maintain their tough stance with regards to prosecuting those who orchestrated and/or committed mass atrocities. They might fear that overturning the Taylor decision on the basis of lack of a truly fair trial will detract from their position of power and respect. By NOT acknowledging their supposed missteps, however, the SCSL will only further tarnish the court’s reputation…and, worse, potentially hinder future efforts to set up transitional courts in other situations warranting their establishment. With all of that in mind, I am of the opinion that the SCSL may have to take a step back—admitting the errors in their handling of the Taylor trial and acting accordingly to right those wrongs—in order to allow for further steps forward in the successful pursuit of transitional justice around the globe.

  2. mjbarnes1 November 26, 2012 at 10:41 am

    Emmaline & Sarah, while I agreed that the suppression of a dissenting opinion has the potential to threat the legitimacy of the SCSL, I also think that the Special Court has to be very cautious when dealing with dissent and in particular, Judge Sow. And for this reason, there are a few issues that have been overlooked:

    1. Judge Sow is not legally entitled to present any concurring or dissenting opinion as an alternate judge. According to the Statute of the SCSL, the alternate judge is must be present throughout the trial to ensure its smooth functioning if one of the presiding judges is unable to continue but that alternate judge is not entitled to vote on the verdict and indeed, is not even required to be consulted during deliberations. If Judge Sow was consulted for his take on the evidence it would have been professional courtesy from the presiding judges rather than a legally binding opinion. Therefore, to allow Judge Sow to present a dissenting opinion would have directly contravened the SCSL Statue (which I’m sure would have legal repercussions which a lawyer would be better placed to elucidate on).

    2. There are competing versions of Judge Sow’s statement, which have different implications. In that tweeted photo, Judge Sow alleges that there were “no deliberations” about the guilt of Taylor, the official defence filing states “where there is no ^ deliberations” indicating that there is a missing word that was not recorded. General consensus seems to indicate that this word was “serious”. Now although both of these are problematic, clearly the accusation of there being no deliberation is a violation of Taylor’s rights to a fair trial and therefore, warrants further (independent) investigation. However, simultaneously, it is not clear as to whether Judge Sow means that there were no deliberations or no deliberations involving him – two very different scenarios. Furthermore, if we accept “serious” is the missing word, it is a subjective term that does not imply judicial misconduct.

    3. The disciplinary measures imposed on Judge Sow are not necessarily unusual. By attempting to circumvent the official decision, Judge Sow also violated Rule 29 of the SCSL Statue, which states “the deliberations of the Chambers shall take place in private and shall remain secret”. Violation of this rule is professional misconduct from Judge Sow and therefore, necessitates censure.

    Of course, I agree there are negative implications that arise from the SCSL’s behaviour and that further investigation is necessary, particular an official release of Judge Sow’s statement, to clarify the situation and restore faith in transitional justice institutions.

  3. Alana Tiemessen November 26, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    Great political and legal analysis by all of you regarding what does and should constitute a fair trial and, by extension, the implications for the court’s credibility. The Taylor Trial at the SCSL was always subject to some criticism and skepticism that the trial was unfair and/or that it connections to the interests of major powers (US and UK) made it difficult for the process to be impartial (i.e. for Taylor to conceivably get anything less than a guilty verdict).

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