It’s been a long time coming, but justice has caught up with Charles Taylor, the former warlord and dictator of Liberia. Sentencing Taylor today to 50 years in prison, the presiding judge in the case at the International Criminal Court at The Hague said Taylor had been convicted of “aiding and abetting, as well as planning, some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history.”
This is a story we know all too well. Ten years ago this month, the Center for Investigative Reporting co-produced a documentary for the PBS series “FRONTLINE/World” called “Gunrunners,” an expose of Taylor’s reign of terror in neighboring Sierra Leone, where he and several international weapons dealers armed rebel groups in exchange for cash and diamonds.
This was the late 1990s war that gave rise to the term blood diamonds. The rebels backed by Taylor became notorious for hacking the faces and limbs of civilians, as well as rape, murder and kidnapping of young boys for use as child soldiers.
“Gunrunners” was produced and reported by CIR’s Rick Young and William “Rocky” Kistner and first aired in 2002, long before most of the world was aware of the illicit arms trade – and Taylor’s role in it.
Prosecutors in the case against Taylor screened the documentary, took notes and consulted producer Young. He recalls that they were especially interested in CIR’s revelations about illegal weapons flights into Sierra Leone, including photos that CIR obtained of one of Taylor’s security men unloading guns from a charter plane that was strangely emblazoned with a Seattle Supersonics logo. The official court judgment against Taylor cites these arms shipments, including a specific flight that CIR tracked through the West African country of Burkina Faso.
Taylor, who ruled Liberia from 1997 to 2003, was indicted for war crimes in 2003 and fled to Nigeria, where he was finally arrested in 2006 and taken to Sierra Leone to face trial. He was transferred to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, where legal proceedings dragged on until this year.
I personally remember the CIR “Gunrunners” documentary well because it was the lead story in the premiere episode of “FRONTLINE/World” in which I was the series editor and senior producer working with Rick and Rocky to help shape their reporting and footage into this riveting CIR television report.
As part of that broadcast, the “FRONTLINE/World” website featured an original, deeply reported “Gallery of International Arms Dealers.” The investigation was led by CIR co-founder Lowell Bergman, CIR reporter Julia Reynolds and Lowell’s investigative reporting class at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. One of the rogue gunrunners identified in the gallery, Jean Bernard Lasnaud, was promptly arrested by Interpol after fleeing the U.S., where he had been living quietly in Florida. Another rogue arms dealer, Viktor Bout, recently was convicted in a U.S. court and sentenced to 25 years in prison. The gallery also includes more information about Leonid Minin, the weapons dealer implicated in the illegal Liberian arms trafficking.
“FRONTLINE/World” stuck with the story of Charles Taylor. In her 2005 story “No More War,” producer Jessie Deeter reported on the disarming of rebel forces in Liberia. Her interview with Taylor’s former defense minister, Daniel Cheah – in which he confirmed that Taylor had shipped arms and ammunition to Sierra Leone’s rebels – became part of the evidence used to convict Taylor.
Ten years is a long time for the victims of Taylor’s rebel soldiers to wait for justice. But it has been rendered, and CIR can take some credit for exposing the atrocities that were committed and how a corrupt international network of arms traffickers fueled the fire of destruction in West Africa.