It was inevitable that the former Liberian President Charles Taylor would challenge his detention in the UK for the sentence imposed in The Hague by the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL). He has put forward a case to serve the remainder of his 50-year sentence in Rwanda for aiding and abetting war crimes.

The British Government in 2006 agreed as part of the deal for the SCSL trial to take place in the Netherlands that, if convicted, he would serve his sentence in a UK prison at British taxpayers’ cost. 

In his application to the Sierra Leone Court in The Hague Taylor claims lack of contact with his family and an on-going risk to his personal safety as the grounds for his application for transfer.

The UK has refused to grant visas to Taylor’s family on the basis that his wife and daughters would not intend to leave the UK following a visit. This refusal, Taylor’s representatives say, gives rise to a breach of not only Taylor’s Article 8 rights, but also those of his family.  Given the foreseeability of a request for a prisoner to see his family, it is strange that the UK undertook to imprison him without regard to the need to facilitate these visits, or an eye to the immigration law headache it was creating for itself.

Taylor has also been held in isolation in the hospital wing of Category A prison HMP Frankland, Durham for the eight months since his transfer to the UK, deemed too much of a target to be in general population. Safety concerns have some weight given a previous near-fatal attack on Radislav Kristic while in UK custody following Kristic’s conviction by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.  There has also been an anonymous letter threatening harm against Charles Taylor directly, potentially from within HMP Frankland.  However, given Taylor’s notoriety it would surely have been clear even back in 2006 that a high level of security would be necessary to ensure this prisoner’s safety.

Taylor’s application, coupled with “right to family life” Article 8 considerations, therefore has some clearly arguable points, and the UK will surely not intervene to resist this request for transfer to Rwanda.  Fighting to hold on to a man tried in the Netherlands for crimes which were committed in Africa, in order to imprison him at a cost to the taxpayer in the region of £80,000 a year is not a vote winning platform, especially when Taylor’s sentence has almost 49 years still to go.  In addition, all other prisoners sentenced by the Sierra Leone Court have in fact been sent to Rwanda. It is difficult to find justification for his continued detention in the UK in these circumstances.

Why did the UK give a commitment to imprison Taylor in the first place? The reasons given were that a trial held in West Africa would destabilize the area, and that no country in the region had the resources or the will to imprison him if convicted. Emphasizing the UK’s “commitment to international justice”, Foreign Minister Margaret Beckett agreed at the time to the UK acting as jailor following a trial in the Netherlands. This enabled proceedings to take place.

While the UK’s actions have potentially helped secure some degree of international stability, and directly ensured Taylor’s trial occurred, no other obvious benefit to the UK is apparent.  In addition it appears scant consideration was given to the practical problems inherent in putting this plan into action back in 2006 when the UK assumed the mantle of captor. 

In present circumstances it is also questionable whether the concept of “destabilization” within West Africa, which was such a focus in 2006, still holds as much force. This is particularly the case given that what is at stake is Taylor’s imprisonment, rather than a trial. With no further evidence to be heard, and only a lengthy prison term to be served, fears for political fallout might be considered at least partly reduced, adding strength to Taylor’s application that he should be returned to Africa.

A transfer away from the UK, while a slightly perverse request given the reported hardship of imprisonment in Rwanda, is one which it should be expected the British Government should not oppose in any part.  Given what has occurred the UK may also be much slower in future to agree to enter into similar agreements and put the tax payer to such significant expense.

Alexandra Matthews