It was reported on 6 December 2019 that the torture charges against Agnes Reeves Taylor, the ex-wife of former Liberian President, Charles Taylor, have been dismissed. Agnes Taylor was charged in 2017 with a number of charges of torture relating to alleged incidents said to have taken place in 1990 in the course of the civil war in Liberia.
According to reports of the decision, the court found that there was:
A lack of evidence that the Taylor regime had governmental control over the areas where Ms Taylor’s alleged crimes happened."
The case, and therefore this decision, is enormously important. It is one of only three prosecutions of individuals in the UK for the offence of torture, which was made an offence in the UK in the Criminal Justice Act 1988. All three cases related to conduct alleged to have occurred abroad, but which fell within the jurisdiction of the UK courts by virtue of the principle of universal jurisdiction, which applies to certain grave crimes including torture.
In 2005, Faryadi Zardad, an Afghan warlord, became the first person to be convicted in the UK of torture, for conduct in Afghanistan between 1991 and 1996. In 2016, Kumar Lama, whom this firm represented, was acquitted following a trial at the Old Bailey. The charges against him related to the alleged torture in 2005 of prisoners held during a civil war in Nepal.
All three cases have helped to define and develop the law in this important area of international criminal law. Most recently, in November 2019, the Supreme Court handed down its judgement in an interlocutory appeal brought by Agnes Reeves Taylor. This judgement confirmed that the offence of torture could extend to those acting in a quasi-official capacity even if they were not exercising the function of a recognised government.
All those interested in the ability of UK courts to hold account foreign nationals for alleged acts of torture occurring abroad will review this case and the reasons for its dismissal with great interest.