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It is almost impossible to describe the state of Sierra Leone at the time of my visit. I know that other Members have been there as well, and I expect they will speak later about their impressions of the environment and the people, but at the time of my visit Freetown consisted
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of a collection of human beings, none of whom held each other’s hands, shuffling along the streets. There were, and still are, approximately 2 million people living in a city designed for 250,000, and during the week that I spent there I saw not one person smile. I saw not one spark of life in anyone. I suppose that a nation recovering from the worst civil war it is possible to imagine would be expected to react in that way.

The action of the British Army was greeted with tremendous gratitude. I attended our Prime Minister’s celebrations in Sierra Leone two weeks ago, when he was awarded a doctorate for services to the country, and there was not a person there who was not crying. Although the war had finished a long time ago, there was not a person in Sierra Leone who was not dreadfully affected by what the rebels had done. There was not one family who had not lost someone, and not in an ordinary way. I am not talking about a “decent” death by, for instance, shooting; I am talking about mutilation and torture of whose like no special court has heard in the history of special courts, certainly since the Nuremberg trials.

I am tremendously proud of the actions of our Government. I am proud that we stepped in as a result of President Kabbah’s request, I am proud that we are still there, and I am proud that we have provided money for the Special Court. Neither the area nor the activity is popular and justice is an expensive business, but we have stepped in. We are here today because of the nature of that Special Court, and the fact that it differs from other special courts that have been established. We are here to seek the House’s agreement that if Charles Taylor were convicted of the crimes of which he is accused, we would undertake our role and ensure that he was imprisoned here in the United Kingdom. I think it right and proper for us to take responsible action in the light of what this man has done, and the problem that he continuously presents to the people of Sierra Leone.

I know a lot about Charles Taylor because I have spoken to hundreds of people who suffered, indirectly or directly, at his hands. To say that he is the most despicable man of whom I have ever read or heard is an understatement. I spoke to the former chief prosecutor of the Special Court, Mr. David Crane. David had the challenging job of setting up the Special Court, and he did a magnificent job, along with colleagues from the United Kingdom. He said, “Every one of us working in this court has experience of the court in Rwanda, and we have worked in Bosnia. In fact, many of us were there during the latter days of the Nuremberg trials. The crimes that we are being asked to consider now make the crimes committed in those other atrocities pale into insignificance.” As my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East pointed out today, Charles Taylor was considered the worst of all because of the type of crime that he committed and oversaw. He was of course responsible for the rebel army that perpetrated crimes on his behalf. In my mind there is no doubt at all that he is guilty of the crimes of which he is accused because, as I say, I have spoken to people who suffered directly at his hands.

I have visited Sierra Leone on many occasions since my first visit; in fact, I have undertaken seven visits so far, and I made four of them to listen to proceedings in the Special Court. I shall describe the Special Court to
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everyone, because I recognise that I am in a privileged position in being able to do so. The Special Court is a unique building in a unique setting. It is designed purely to hold the 11 men accused of committing the crimes in question, so the facilities are restricted to provision for just 11 men. There is an extensive compound, which is available to the prosecution and defence teams, who can use it to prepare and review their work. There are special facilities for witnesses who come to the court. Many of those witnesses are either direct victims, or have watched a procedure, and may be the only witnesses left to testify to an atrocity. A United Nations force is there, and there are representatives from all over the world who staff the Special Court to make sure that the international standards that have been established to support it are enforced on a daily basis.

Admittance and access to the Special Court are by invitation only, but the Special Court does not begin to compare with one of our secure prisons. I do not want hon. Members to think of it as a heavily defended facility, because it is not. It is not as well defended as one of our open prisons—well, that might be doing it a disservice, but not too much of one. There is some inspection and interrogation of visitors, but if someone was determined to get into the Special Court, they could. I think that that was one of the reasons why President Kabbah and other leaders in the west coast region wanted to move Charles Taylor out: they recognised that they could not build a facility like Fort Knox or Wakefield prison, which houses huge numbers of sex offenders. There could be no wall 30 ft high and 9 ft thick, with barbed wire. It does not look like that. The front wall is perhaps 12 ft high with a bit of barbed wire, but the building is no fortress.

Once one gets into the main court area, access to the court is fairly straightforward. There is some bag checking. In the court itself, there is a small area in which visitors can witness proceedings, but the court is very small. Visitors are separated from the accused by a glass wall, which is there to protect visitors from the view of the accused. That, of course, is done to ensure that none of the accused can let supporters who come to witness proceedings know who they regard as potential enemies in need of disposal.

The facilities in which the prisoners are kept are good by our standards, and I have visited a significant number of prisons in the UK. There is no doubling-up in the Special Court; there is a cell for everyone. A single corridor fronts each and every cell, and every cell has a door. By Sierra Leone standards, we are talking about exceptional accommodation. It is a concern to millions of people in that country that those who perpetrated the worst crimes against them have suddenly found themselves in what they would call five-star luxury—and it is five-star luxury. As I say, by our standards they are very good cells. They are large—they are about 12 ft by 7 ft—and they contain a good bed, a television, plenty of air, and lighting. The vast majority of people in Sierra Leone do not have access to electricity, but people who are accused of serious crimes there have access to light. The facilities available to people accused of crimes in the Special Court are therefore exceptionally good.

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As I said earlier, I do not think that we need to worry too much about the health of the people held in the Special Court: I was told that if I fell ill while I was in Sierra Leone, there was only one place that I would be taken to, and that was the health facility in the Special Court. There is every intention of ensuring that if anything happens to any of the men accused they will get immediate medical assistance, because nobody in Sierra Leone wants those men to die any sooner than is absolutely necessary. Everybody wants to make sure that they are as well and as fit as possible, because they must be seen to stand trial for the crimes of which they are accused. I hope that I have described the nature of the Special Court and the conditions in which the men there are being held. I regard the conditions as exceptionally good, even by our standards. However, safety standards there leave a huge amount to be desired, when compared to those in our country.

I want to talk briefly about Charles Taylor. I do not intend to describe his indictment, although I have a record of it in front of me.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady, but I would like to make a point before she moves on. She did herself a disservice in her earlier comments; Members of the House often need to go to the areas of the world in which they are interested and witness things there with their own eyes so that they can come back informed and talk in the House about what they have seen, as she has done so adequately. She has described in great detail the conditions in which Charles Taylor is being held by the Special Court. Does she have any views on how he ought to be held in this country? In what sort of prison, and what sort of conditions, ought he to be held?

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: Having visited category A, B and C prisons—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am reluctant to intervene, but perhaps we are getting a little ahead of ourselves with that intervention. It is, in any case, a difficult question for the hon. Lady to answer, and I am not sure that it is quite within our brief.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: With your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should just like to say that Charles Taylor will probably be remanded to a category A prison as they are the prisons that house our most violent and dangerous offenders. I would not put money on it, but the prison is likely to be Wakefield, because it is a very secure establishment.

I would like to talk about my visit to various communities affected by the civil war. I suspect that my hon. Friend the Minister finds it very difficult to talk about what Charles Taylor has done, and to review the crimes that he is alleged to have committed, and I share that view.

I visited a number of communities, and I should like to tell the House a little bit about that. I visited a lovely community in Sierra Leone called Waterloo, which is a big town and the last place held by the rebels before they were forced to capitulate. It is a major interface between the country and the city. The rebels knew that if they held it they controlled a major access point, both in and out, so the people of Waterloo had an
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appalling time. I now know many of the people in the town. Waterloo in my own constituency is twinned with the community: we are building up all sorts of partnerships, and it is a privilege to be able to do so.

When Charles Taylor was in power, his rebel forces were stationed in Waterloo, which had three checkpoints. At either side of those checkpoints there was a spiked cartwheel-like arrangement, and every day for seven years, a new head was placed on the spikes. The bodies were dumped on the steps of the local church. I know the priest very well indeed, and his job was to match the heads to the bodies at the end of every day. The chairman of the council is a lovely man called Alieu Mansaray. Borough councillors are the same all over the world: at the moment, Alieu is complaining about central Government policy, lack of money and so on, so everything is settling down to normality. However, when I talked to him about what Charles Taylor’s forces did in his community, he said, “Claire, there was rape and pillage.” In six years, every woman in his community was raped. It did not matter if they were six months old or 80 years old—they were all raped. Many women went on to have children by the men who raped them. Many of the children in the community were abducted, after being forced to murder or rape their own parents. I find that difficult to come to grips with, but energising at the same time—as human beings, we must be able to respond to that degree of abuse whenever it arises. I reiterate what I said earlier: I am immensely proud that we stepped in and are doing what every human being should do when confronted by such atrocities, as the people of Waterloo could not defend themselves.

On my last visit, I met an elderly woman. It is difficult to get people to talk about what happened to them in the war. It is a bit like the position for many Jews who found themselves in Auschwitz: it is over, and they want to move on. However, I was in the country when Charles Taylor was brought back to the Special Court from Nigeria. As the helicopter carrying him flew over the city, people fell to their knees and cried. They were shaking with fear, even though he was in the helicopter. Olive Williams, a lovely elderly woman, said that it was very sad for her that the war did not come to an end earlier, because she would still have had her son. As Charles Taylor’s days were coming to an end, her son was decapitated in front of her, then she was forced to breastfeed his head. She said, “It sounds awful, doesn’t it, Claire?” I said, “Yes, it does.” She said, “I wasn’t the only one, that day. There were half a dozen of us.”

I therefore understood only too well why people were shaking in the streets at the prospect of Charles Taylor’s return. I feel like that myself—I had never heard of anyone who could commit such crimes. I understand, too, why it was vital that we pulled him out of the country. It is extremely difficult for people to deal with someone like that; it is difficult for a country in so much terror of that man. I was delighted when he was sent to The Hague, which is the right place for him. My hon. Friends and other Members should know that when he was held in the Special Court while those international discussions were under way, he did not mix with anyone else. He chose isolation—he did not even mix with the men with whom he stood jointly accused. He did not spend any time talking to them at
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all. I saw him briefly myself, although not to talk to. I could see that he was very much afraid that they might kill him. He was very concerned about his personal safety, and he has a right to be concerned about that. I hope, however, that that was not the reason why he was moved. I hope that he was moved because there are millions of people in Sierra Leone who remain terrified of him today. The fact that he was incarcerated did not help them at all. Now that he has been moved to The Hague, his pernicious effect on Sierra Leone has been marginalised. The country is about to hold presidential elections in August so, to ensure that they are conducted well, it was vital that he was moved out of the country. His presence is not a positive one, and it might have jeopardised a fragile state. Sierra Leone is still terribly poor—it is the second poorest country in the world—so if we can remove destabilising characters from such countries, that is a good thing.

I fully endorse the sentiment that, where possible, people should be tried in their own country for crimes that they have committed. Occasionally, however—not very often, thank God—individuals such as Charles Taylor appear, and every such case must be treated on its merits. The fact that he was moved to The Hague was a very good thing, in my opinion. The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) raised the issue of trials that take a very long time, and people in Sierra Leone ask why it has taken so long to bring those men to book. There is a simple answer. The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said that obligations under international law were not fully understood or even supported, and that difficulty is reflected in Charles Taylor’s failure to appear in The Hague or acknowledge the court’s legitimacy.

David Crane spent a number of years ensuring that all the proceedings entered into in Sierra Leone would stand the most rigorous test by any other court established to interrogate those operations. That took quite a bit of time, even before people collected evidence for the indictments. That group of men committed crimes the length and breadth of Sierra Leone. Some 80 per cent. of the population is illiterate, so collecting evidence from witnesses was difficult. It was difficult, too, to persuade them that it was safe to appear in court, so that procedure took an inordinate length of time. There was an obligation, too, to collect evidence when there were no witnesses left who were prepared to come to court but there was clear evidence that a significant atrocity had been committed. It was essential to link that atrocity to the individual perpetrators who stood accused of those crimes in the court. That explains the four years.

In addition, it has been implied that prosecution actions have been tardy, but each of those individuals has a right to an adequate defence. As the prosecution has built and disclosed its cases, the defence team have been successful in seeking adjournments while they prepare further defence for the people they represent. It would not have done justice to the individuals, to the crimes they have committed or to the people against whom those crimes have been committed if the proceedings had been expedited. More than 50,000 people were involved in the rebel army, but only 11 will stand trial, and they bear the greatest responsibility. I hope that that explains to the hon. Member for Cotswold why the cases have taken so long.

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: Because of the hon. Lady’s legal experience, the information she is providing is extremely useful. However, what if Judge Antonio Cassese is correct that the indictment and all the evidence have already been gathered in the Charles Taylor case? The trial started on 4 June this year. If the judge is correct that the actual trial will take more than two years, does the hon. Lady not think that that is too long?

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I might have been inclined to agree had I not attended some of the proceedings, which are tortuous in the extreme. There is a huge amount of legal argument before those involved settle to the substantive matters. Days can go by with the defence and the prosecution supporting or opposing a particular position before there is a chance to hear any contributions from any of the witnesses, or from the accused themselves. There are also other issues that take time to address, such as ensuring witness protection and witness arrangements. Two years is the longest period for any of the cases. Some have involved matters such as international law protocols. The proceedings in Sierra Leone have been conducted much more quickly than those of the other international courts, such as that for Rwanda. I suspect that that is a benefit of there having been a low international profile. If there had been more international interest, the proceedings might have taken considerably longer. The absence of such interest has allowed the proceedings to move forward swiftly.

It is immensely important for Sierra Leone that justice is done, and that it is seen to be done. Allocating this period of time will indicate to many people that the job has been done well, that if Charles Taylor is convicted he is well and truly convicted, and there is no chance of his returning to court on appeal because correct procedure has not been followed. Everybody wants that. I suspect that Charles Taylor wants to make sure that he has a fair trial, and everybody else does as well.

I am proud of what our country has done in intervening to bring this horrific war to an end and in stepping in with the money for the Special Court. David Crane went on bended knee all over the world searching for money and he could not get the money to establish that court, but we stepped in. I am also proud that we supported the application for Charles Taylor to be moved to The Hague, and that we are prepared to incarcerate him. I hope that we do so for life. I hope that there is never a question of him possibly being let out or being given asylum. Life is the only fitting sentence for a man who has committed the sorts of crimes that he has.

When I go to Sierra Leone people often ask me of Charles Taylor, “Where’s he going, and what’s it like?” I am able to describe Wakefield prison to them in detail. I am able to talk about the height and width of the walls, about the cell where he will be kept, and the visiting rights. They are enormously reassured that he will be put somewhere where he will be safely housed and where, crucially, they will be safe from him. I am immensely proud that we will have achieved that and have given those people what they deserve: justice and freedom from a terrible man.

2.55 pm

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), whose testimony was powerful. She spoke movingly, knowledgeably and with great sincerity.

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The Liberal Democrats support the proposed change to the International Criminal Court Act 2001, and the commitment to human rights that it demonstrates. Without well-publicised enforcement of human rights laws and without an obvious determination to see that those who are alleged to have broken them are brought to justice, those laws will not deter future war criminals and human rights offenders. It is right that Britain should lead the way by sending a clear signal to the rest of the world that those alleged to have violated human rights will be tried and, if necessary, punished. By agreeing to imprison Charles Taylor, should he be convicted, we are doing just that.

Often, apparent support for human rights laws by major international players is not backed by their actions, and violations by so-called friends abroad are ignored because of the possible financial and political ramifications of calling them to account. I hope that this move by the Government illustrates a new willingness to engage wherever there are human rights abuses. I add my party’s congratulations to those of Members who have spoken of the sterling and remarkable work of our troops in helping to end this conflict and bring peace and democracy to a region so devastated by the effects of a war that shocked the rest of the world.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I am privileged to represent a borough that has the largest African community in the country, including many from Sierra Leone. May I associate those whom I know of them—whatever their politics in respect of Sierra Leone—with that commendation of the actions of the Government, our troops and this Bill? If everyone in the UK who comes from Sierra Leone sees justice being done with our support, that will not only be great for the future of Sierra Leone, but will greatly help the future relationships between this country, the west and Europe and Sierra Leone.

Mark Hunter: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He makes his point in his usual excellent way.

None of us will forget the reports that have emerged of the mass murders, rapes, mutilations and amputations, and the involvement of child soldiers. By agreeing to imprison Charles Taylor, should he be found guilty, we are rightly finishing the job that we have started. I wish to make a few specific points about the Bill, and I have some questions for the Minister, but I want to make it clear that I have no criticism of the principle behind the Bill, which we fully support.

I am concerned about the impact of the decision to move the trial of Charles Taylor out of Sierra Leone to The Hague. There is still considerable disquiet among the people of Sierra Leone and members of the international community about the decision. That the victims of the war in Sierra Leone feel that they have ownership of the court is important to the process of recovery from the conflict. A Human Rights Watch paper published in June last year stated that

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