Exit Taylor

The former Liberian leader is going to jail for war crimes. But he leaves behind a host of unanswered questions.

One afternoon, just before he took a job as a state judge in 1990, federal prosecutor Richard G. Stearns was clearing out his desk at the U.S. Attorney's office in Boston when he came across an old piece of evidence: the wallet belonging to Charles Taylor, a young Liberian bureaucrat he had attempted to extradite back to his homeland in 1985.

"He was a reasonably educated and polished in his own way," Stearns recalled. "But I did not honestly see him at that time as what he became, which was bloodthirsty."

Taylor was educated at Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts before returning home to serve in the government of brutal dictator Samuel Doe. After falling out of favor with Doe, Taylor returned to the United States, where he was arrested in 1984 on embezzlement charges. Famously, however, he escaped from a jail in Plymouth before he could be extradited, emerged a short time later as a warlord in the Liberian bush, and fought his way toward the presidency of his country, building a political career through a succession of humanitarian catastrophes in West Africa.

The Taylor case remained a dangling thread for Stearns. Until Thursday.

Stearns -- now a federal judge in Massachusetts -- heard, along with rapt audiences in Freetown, Monrovia, and in the gallery at the Special Court for Sierra Leone at The Hague, what may be the final word on the former Liberian president's career: Taylor was found guilty on 11 counts of aiding and abetting Sierra Leonean rebels in crimes including the murder, rape, and conscription of child soldiers during that country's 1990s civil war.

Yet, for all the finality of the decision, questions linger. Was justice served in his trial? Did the proceedings clarify or further obscure Taylor's myth? And what impact, if any, will the court's decision have of on the future of Liberia?

Both Taylor's enemies and supporters, of whom many are still in influential political position in Monrovia, criticize the Special Court for holding Taylor to account for crimes related to Sierra Leone, rather than the civil war he launched in Liberia. As Taylor's former Defense Minister Tom Woewiyu said in an interview this week, "Those who are trying Taylor for Sierra Leone, they're more or less saying to what he did in Liberia, to hell with the Liberians."

Woewiyu said the nature of the court's indictment of the president while he was still in power in 2003 prompted questions over whether the international community -- the United States and Britain in particular -- were using the court as a means to remove him from office. The Special Court was intended to be an organ of international justice, not a cudgel of Western policies. But many of those involved, including Taylor himself, saw it as just that.

Before this week's verdict, Woewiyu said he received a call from Taylor at The Hague.

"Oh, Tom. I should've listened to you many years ago," Taylor told him.

"I always used to tell him this parable about when the elephant tells you to do something, you don't look at the elephant and say ‘no.' Because the elephant is the most powerful animal on the face of the Earth," said Woewiyu, who now lives in Pennsylvania. "America is the elephant of the world today." Taylor told Woewiyu he believes his unwillingness to open up offshore oil development to U.S. companies led to his prosecution, a theory one former U.S. Embassy official described to me as "a crock of shit."

Documents received through a Freedom of Information request show that as early as December 2000, the State Department sought information "to weaken and discredit the Taylor regime internationally" as part of a "long-term campaign" to be waged at the United Nations. The court was created by a joint U.N.-Sierra Leone agreement in 2002.

Taylor supporters have consistently decried the U.S. influence over the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Two Americans -- prosecutor, David M. Crane, and chief investigator, Alan White -- launched the case for the tribunal and indicted Taylor in 2003.

In the end, those closest to Taylor provided the most damning evidence for the prosecution. "I was fortunate enough to be able to flip some people very quickly that were insiders that took me straight to the top and could lay things out," White told me this week. "Once that happened it quickly became what Taylor was about, what his role was."

Following Taylor's arrest and indictment, the State Department, through actions at the United Nations and active fundraising for the tribunal, continued to play an outside role in the proceedings. U.S. diplomats were briefed on Taylor's finances and the quotidian details of his incarceration -- from his diet to his phone allowance to the number of visitors he received -- at the ICC detention unit. There, Taylor had struck up a friendship with fellow detainee, Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga, who was convicted in March.

"The two detainees are apparently getting along well," an August 2006 cable noted.

Even during his incarceration, Taylor inspired fear -- particularly among prosecution witnesses. One prosecutor told an American diplomat that "he was surprised that someone had not been killed yet" in March 2008.

Despite the active involvement of Western powers in the operations of the tribunal, the Special Court fought the impression that Taylor was facing U.S. and European justice for African crimes. But after WikiLeaked State Department cables showed that the U.S. had considered the possibility of trying Taylor in the United States if the Special Court failed to convict him, Taylor's counsel attempted to use to reopen the defense's case based on "grave doubts about the independence and impartiality of the Special Court's prosecution of Charles Taylor." The court dismissed the motion, but there's enough evidence of U.S. interest throughout the case that many Liberians may share Taylor's doubts about the tribunal's independence.

Others worry that with Taylor's conviction, those who were complicit in crimes during the period of his rule will be let off the hook.

"For Taylor, justice was served, but for Liberia and, actually, for Sierra Leone, there are more people that need to come down," said Robert Ferguson, a former operations coordinator for the Defense Attache at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia from 2001 to 2003, citing Taylor associates who remain in power in Liberia.

Liberia, unlike Sierra Leone, has made no efforts to hold perpetrators from the nation's 14-year civil war to account. A Truth and Reconciliation process established by the Liberian government is now moribund. After the commission issued its findings in 2009 -- including the recommendation that Sirleaf be barred from office for 30 years for her part in supporting Taylor while he was a guerrilla fighter -- nothing has happened.

In fact, just two weeks before the Taylor verdict, Sirleaf named one those implicated as a chief perpetrators of human rights crimes during Liberia's civil war -- Alhaji Kromah -- ambassador-at-large for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Last month, a U.S. judge deported another alleged chief perpetrator -- George Boley -- from Rochester, New York to Liberia for suspected role in war crimes. Neither he nor any other faction leader, including Charles Taylor, has been charged with any crime in Liberia.

"They're not going down the justice route, that's obvious," Stephen J. Rapp, the U.S. State Department's ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, said of the Liberian government. "It still has to work through this process because obviously people involved in the crimes other than Charles Taylor still have to answer for those crimes."

To critics, the long, expensive trial, which at times bordered on theater of the absurd -- such as a 2010 cameo by supermodel Naomi Campbell -- meandered from the intended purpose of justice and reconciliation for the people of Sierra Leone.

"The process was outlandish. All the years that it took and all of the money that was spent, I think there must be a better method," said Herman J. Cohen, a former ambassador and assistant secretary of state for Africa during the first Bush administration.

Cohen was among the first U.S. diplomats to meet Taylor when he was fighting to depose Samuel K. Doe in the early 1990s. Later, following the leader's election as president in 1997, he counted Taylor as a client of his lobbying firm, Cohen and Woods.

The tribunal, which ran from June 2008 until November 2010, cost American taxpayers $81 million, according to U.S. officials. It also provided Taylor a platform to rewrite his own biography. Over five and half months, the former president retraced the narrative of his political career from his jailbreak in Plymouth to training in the Libyan desert with Muammar al-Qaddafi's sponsorship through the Liberian civil war and his rise and fall as president.

Taylor also used his testimony to promote the persistent rumors of his connections to intelligence services, including the CIA, whom he claims engineered his escape from jail. (The Plymouth House of Corrections, a chronically overcrowded and out-of-date facility, had suffered a series of escapes prior to Taylor's.)

The reports of Taylor's alleged CIA connections continued to draw scrutiny. In January, the Boston Globe pulled back from a front-page story that had suggested that Taylor was a U.S. intelligence asset during his rise to power.

For now, there's not much evidence to substantiate the story. Cohen, who served as the head of the Bureau of African Affairs until 1993, said "I've seen no evidence that the CIA was in liaison with him -- in fact the only one who was really a liaison with him [from 1990-93] was me."

Nor was Taylor working for the Defense Intelligence Agency, according to Robert Ferguson, who worked under two defense attaches in Monrovia: "He was not a DIA asset. Period."

These may turn out to be questions for historians rather than prosecutors. Judging by the muted reaction the verdict received in Monrovia, it seems that Liberians aren't particularly interested in delving into the remaining mysteries of the Taylor era.

"Even the Barcelona and Chelsea game had more excitement than this," a former Taylor commander and current intelligence official told me. "The country has outgrown this guy. The country wants to develop. Everyone wants to get their life back in order."



Power Play

Egypt may think it struck a blow against Israel by canceling a gas deal between the two countries. But all it really did was shoot itself in the foot.

It must be serious news to make Israel's ultra-hawkish foreign minister turn conciliatory. Yet Avigdor Lieberman described Egypt's April 22 cancellation of its deal to supply Israel with natural gas as "a trade dispute," minimizing the political repercussions of the end to the most significant economic tie between the two erstwhile adversaries. "To turn a business dispute into a diplomatic dispute would be a mistake," Lieberman counseled.

At first sight, the deal's cancellation is a blow to Israel. During normal times, 40 percent of its gas needs were met by Egypt. In the deal's absence, Israel's utility company has raised its rates by a third and has turned to burning expensive, dirty fuel oil. Even so, there are fears of blackouts this summer.

The formal cutoff was only the postscript to a long series of interruptions to the gas supply. The pipelines in the Sinai Peninsula have been bombed some 14 times since Egypt's revolution as law and order has broken down and Bedouin tribes have revenged their grievances against the government. Gas flowed to Israel for only 140 days last year, and 25 days in the first three months of this year.

Other Israeli politicians were not as sanguine as Lieberman. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz worried that the cancellation was "a dangerous precedent which casts a shadow on the peace agreements and the peaceful atmosphere between Egypt and Israel."

Yet the cancellation is neither a challenge to the Camp David Accords nor a purely commercial matter. The decision is instead a product of Egypt's muddled domestic politics, which means short-term pain for Tel Aviv but a longer-term strategic defeat for Cairo. As for the law, it's at least debatable: The 1979 peace treaty obliges Egypt and Israel to maintain normal economic relations, but the gas deal is dealt with in a 2005 memorandum of understanding referencing the treaty. Such memoranda are generally considered nonbinding in international law.

The gas deal with Israel has long been deeply unpopular in Egypt. Quite apart from the unpopularity of trading with a regional pariah, the deal is seen as a giveaway. The price for the gas was initially as low as $1.25 per million British thermal units (MMBtu) and was reportedly increased to $4 in 2008 -- the same as Egyptian industries pay. In the absence of a regional benchmark at the time of the deal in 2005, the price might have been defensible, but it now seems very low compared with the $7 to $10 Egypt earns for exports to Southern Europe.

The Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company (EGAS), the Egyptian company that canceled the deal, explained its decision by saying that the East Mediterranean Gas Company (EMG), the Egyptian-Israeli joint venture that runs the pipeline, had failed to pay for the gas. But EMG had already last October launched arbitration proceedings against EGAS, with total claims amounting to some $8 billion, due to the repeated interruptions in supply caused by pipeline bombings. So it seems likely that's not the whole story.

Still, the timing of the cutoff is strange, as the gas contract has in recent months not been high in the public's consciousness. It is also hard not to speculate how the tumultuous politics in Cairo played into this decision. If it was sanctioned by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), was the aim to take credit for a popular initiative ahead of the presidential election -- and if so, why has SCAF not claimed responsibility? Or was the intention to remove a potentially thorny issue from the agenda of the new president, or alternatively to deny him such a populist victory? Given the tumultuous and often opaque political scene in Cairo nowadays, observers can do little more than wonder.

Rather than being an orchestrated maneuver for political advantage, it is also possible that the termination is one more part of Egypt's chaotic, mismanaged transition. Former officials in Hosni Mubarak's regime who allegedly enriched themselves off the gas deal have increasingly been on the receiving end of public anger. Quintessential crony capitalist Hussein Salem, a Mubarak intimate, was convicted in absentia last October on corruption charges related to the deal, and his protégé, former Petroleum Minister Sameh Fahmy, was arrested on similar charges more than a year ago and is currently facing trial. Informed sources have suggested to me that Fahmy's successor, Abdullah Ghorab, was apparently not involved in the decision to annul the contract, which may have been made by senior EGAS personnel fearful of prosecution or public anger.

The cutoff may also be part of rather heavy-handed negotiation tactics to compel the Israeli side to pay a higher price. Compared with the alternative of burning fuel oil, a short-term price as high as $16 per MMBtu might still be competitive. Indeed, Egypt's minister of international cooperation, Fayza Abul Naga -- who is already seen on the world stage as decidedly uncooperative due to her central role in the prosecution of American NGO workers in Egypt -- said on April 23 that the country was ready to resume supplies, albeit at a higher price.

Whatever the reason for the decision, it has squandered one of the Egyptian energy industry's most precious resources. The one thing more important for gas customers than attractive prices is security. As Algeria discovered in the early 1980s and Russia and Ukraine in 2009, once a gas supplier gains a reputation for unreliability, it is very hard to shake off. With the pipeline bombings and now this contractual action, Egypt has squandered a lot of hard-won trust.

This incident marks the definitive end of a very successful period for Egypt's gas industry. Beginning in the early 1990s, Cairo liberalized its natural gas exploration policy, invited foreign investment, and developed new gas exports, including building liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants and pipelines to Israel and its Arab neighbors Jordan and Syria. Major new fields were found offshore in the Nile Delta, and in the two decades since 1990, gas reserves increased nearly sixfold and production almost eightfold.

But this policy had already run into trouble before the revolution. Low, fixed prices made new developments unviable, while encouraging demand to grow at 9 percent annually. Egypt's LNG plants are running below capacity, and its promising shale-gas potential and new offshore fields will not be exploited without price increases. Political paralysis in Cairo, however, makes it all but impossible to reform the subsidized domestic market.

The horizon of Egypt's gas sector is also steadily shrinking. Ambitious plans to expand the Arab Gas Pipeline as far as Turkey, to link it to the European market, have been relegated to the realm of dreams. It also remains to be seen whether prices to Jordan will be raised further or whether that deal too will be annulled. Hassan Younis, minister of electricity and energy, made it clear that the gas originally sent to Israel will now be diverted to the domestic market. But despite claims that Egypt could benefit from using the gas at home, the 2.1 billion cubic meters (BCM) shipped in 2010 is a small part of Egypt's total output of 61 BCM.

Israel will suffer some short-term pain for Egypt's decision. It has already begun contingency plans, however, stepping up output from its existing domestic fields and planning a fast-tracked LNG import terminal. It could be operational as early as the end of this year and would more than replace the lost Egyptian gas -- though at three times the price.

Additionally, while Egypt's gas future looks gloomy without major reforms, Israel's has been transformed by new discoveries in the deep waters of the eastern Mediterranean. The first big find, the Tamar gas field, is due to start production in April 2013. Egypt has thus given Israel a useful opportunity not only to escape from a deal that was about to become unnecessary, but also to claim damages and the moral high ground.

The timing is admittedly awkward for Israel, given that its electricity company has been negotiating gas purchase agreements with the companies developing Tamar at the same time as the Knesset passed a law imposing higher taxes and royalties on profits from the fields. Now -- with the energy companies aware that Israel needs their gas supplies more than ever before -- the electricity company's bargaining position has weakened significantly.

But in the longer term, the picture is bright. Even without Tamar, the Leviathan gas field alone -- found in 2010 and due to enter production in 2017 -- could supply increasing Israeli demand up to 2030 and still have a 20-year reserve remaining. With significant remaining exploration potential, Israel could therefore become a major exporter. Energy-poor Jordan is a likely market; the Hashemite Kingdom is already set to lose $2.1 billion this year due to the pipeline bombings. The other countries on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, Syria and Lebanon, are obviously not possible customers for Israel, barring a seismic political realignment. Iraq should be the major supplier for these countries, but Baghdad is locked in a lengthy internal debate concerning gas requirements for domestic use.

In a remarkable role reversal, it is even conceivable that Israel could end up sending gas to Egypt. Or Israel may expand its share in the European market by becoming a significant LNG exporter in its own right, perhaps via Cyprus, which enjoyed a significant discovery of its own last October. Either way, Israel draws its neighbors closer into its economic orbit, while at the same time diminishing Egypt's role. This will also strengthen the determination of Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to press ahead with offshore gas development despite territorial disputes with Lebanon and Turkey (via the conflict over the divided island of Cyprus).

The cancellation of the unloved gas deal should not be overplayed as a token of hostility from the new Egypt toward Israel. But it does remove one plank of their already shaky economic cooperation. And it demonstrates that, under its current leadership, Egypt's political and economic clout is further dwindling at the very moment that Tel Aviv has landed an unexpected windfall.

AFP/Getty Images