Charles Taylor Requests Transfer to Rwanda

by Kevin Jon Heller

Full disclosure: Taylor is represented by John Jones QC, who is my colleague at Doughty Street Chambers.

Charles Taylor has filed a disturbing motion with the Special Court for Sierra Leone’s Residual Mechanism, requesting that he be transferred from prison in the UK to a prison in Rwanda because of his mistreatment by the British government. Here are the key paragraphs from the motion’s introduction:

Charles Taylor is the first and only person sent by an international court to serve their sentence, against their wish, outside of their continent of origin. This previously invariable practice accords with a basic requirement of humane treatment: that prisoners should be able to receive periodic visits from their families. International human rights standards, including as recently affirmed by the European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”) in Khodorkovskiy, prohibit sending a prisoner unnecessarily for away from the habitual residence of family members, or otherwise creating obstacles that prevent periodic visits.

That is precisely the consequence of Mr. Taylor’s detention in the United Kingdom (“UK”). The extraordinary cost and difficulty of travel for Liberian citizens to the UK, given the financial circumstances of Mr. Taylor’s family, means that Mr. Taylor will seldom, if ever, see his wife and three young daughters, let alone the rest of his family, again. That deprivation will continue, given the length of Mr. Taylor’s sentence, for the remainder of his life unless significant measures are taken to facilitate those visits. The UK has, to the contrary, obstructed such visits. Visa requests by Mr. Taylor’s wife and two of his young daughters have been denied even though the UK was well aware of the purpose of the requested visit. Mr. Taylor has not seen his wife and children since being transferred to the UK eight months ago. This already constitutes a human rights violation: the ECtHR has specifically held that even shorter periods of deprivation of family contact constitute a violation of the right to family life.

Even if these legal impediments were to be surmounted, neither the UK nor the RSCSL has demonstrated any willingness to overcome the inherent difficulties and cost of travel to the UK so as to permit family visits of even a minimally acceptable frequency. The United Kingdom and the RSCSL are jointly and severally responsible for the violation of not only Mr. Taylor’s right to family life, but that of his family members. An immediate remedy is required to put an end to this ongoing violation, and a remedy is readily available to the RSCSL: terminate his enforcement in the UK and transfer Mr. Taylor to Rwanda.

Mr. Taylor’s isolation is exacerbated by the conditions in which he is, and must be, held in the UK. Mr. Taylor has been confined to the prison’s hospital wing, effectively in isolation, since his arrival there. The prison authorities believe, correctly, that Mr. Taylor is too much of a target and too vulnerable to be accommodated within the general prison population. The seriousness of the danger is underscored by the interception of an anonymous letter, possibly originating from within the prison itself, threatening Mr. Taylor with bodily harm and death. Radislav Krstić, whose crimes were less notorious than those for which Mr. Taylor has been found responsible, suffered a near-fatal attack by fellow inmates in a UK prison in 2010. The ICTY was apparently sufficiently concerned about the UK’s ability to ensure adequate conditions of detention for Mr. Krstić that he was transferred back to The Hague. The RSCSL should be equally concerned about the real threat faced by Mr. Taylor, and the unsuitability of a UK prison to ensure that he is kept in a situation that meets the minimum standards required by international law.

The RSCSL should accordingly exercise its authority pursuant to Article 9(2) of the Enforcement of Sentences Agreement between the Court and the UK on 10 July 2007 (“SCSL-UK Enforcement Agreement”) and immediately terminate the enforcement of Mr. Taylor’s sentence, and order that he be transferred directly to Rwanda or, in the alternative, to The Hague pending further deliberations. Rwanda is a location that will permit reasonably frequent family visits and provide Mr. Taylor with a safe environment without being segregated from all other prisoners.

The motion’s allegations, which are supported by hundreds of pages of annexes, are profoundly unsettling. I’d like to say I’m surprised that I haven’t heard more about Taylor’s situation, but I’m not: the media generally pay attention only to individuals accused of international crimes, producing article after article about the allegedly cushy conditions in the UN Detention Unit — the so-called “Hague Hilton.” Once defendants are convicted, journalists seem to lose interest in them. I hope this new motion will spur more coverage of post-conviction detention, which is anything but cushy even in places as “advanced” as the UK — as Taylor’s situation demonstrates.

It will be interesting to see if the SCSL takes the motion seriously. It should.

12 Responses

  1. Kevin,

    The motion was co-filed by John Jones, a colleague of yours now at Doughty Street Chambers. For purposes of transparency, it would be appropriate if you ensure that you are open about your conflicts whenever you solicit your opinion about a matter being handled by your office.

  2. Such as the one in the first line of the post, which you obviously didn’t bother to read?

  3. No, the “media” (that is our Western main stream media!) do not pay attention to Taylor. But that is because they generally pay scant attention to African matters. There is research in media sociology whereby to be reported, an fatal accident in, say Europe, must involve, say, five people. To achieve similar coverage, an African “accident” has to involve about 500 dead. These are just average numbers of course, Boko Haram abducting girls is another matter. And it only applies to black people: kidnap a white person, even if they’re quite unharmed and of course you get the coverage. Now, Taylor may be a beast, but he needs to be treated humanely still. The only worry I would have is if bringing him to Africa will not give his followers (I’m sure some are still extant, devoted to him and armed) the chance to free him.

  4. I would think the matter is more one of follow-up stories on conviction as Kevin put it than the fact of African origin like Maven suggests. I’m all for a bit of ‘western’ media bashing, but I generally think their coverage of events outside Europe have improved. If you take a cross section of e.g. The Guardian, BBC and Al Jazeera they all have dedicated tabs for African news.
    The fact that this is not translated into the nightly bulletins is simply a matter of meeting the demands of their viewers. I would assume issues of local concern rank higher on most peoples agenda, and thus less newsworthy stories on the facts alone become a top story due to the local connection. Otherwise the news might become somewhat repetitive if they were to report on the global car crashes of the day…

  5. The most likely reason why it isn’t being widely reported is that things like ‘Prisoner doesn’t get visited by family’, ‘Prisoner is threatened by other prisoners’ and ‘Newly-sentenced prisoner finds life difficult’ are not newsworthy in any sense of the word.

  6. Nope, nothing newsworthy at all about a major Western democracy systematically violating the internationally-protected human rights of a high-profile prison inmate.

  7. It honestly doesn’t matter what the court does since no other state could enforce the sentence. Simply put, there’s no other state that is capable or willing to imprison him.

  8. Zach,

    From what I’ve heard from well-placed insiders, that’s not the case. According to them, Rwanda would be willing to take Taylor off the UK’s hands. And Rwanda is certainly capable of securely detaining Taylor. (Though I really wonder whether conditions in Rwanda would really be better for him.)

  9. Kevin,

    If that is the case, there should be no reason for the court not to grant the request. The only political obstacle that I could imagine, which is pure speculation, is opposition from the United States.

  10. “From what I’ve heard from well-placed insiders, that’s not the case. According to them, Rwanda would be willing to take Taylor off the UK’s hands. And Rwanda is certainly capable of securely detaining Taylor. (Though I really wonder whether conditions in Rwanda would really be better for him.”

    LOL. I read your post thinking, “f*ck prison in Rwanda.”

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