LONDON — A British judge has dismissed torture charges against the ex-wife of a former Liberian president before her trial next month over accusations relating to the country’s civil war.
Agnes Reeves Taylor, the ex-wife of former President Charles Taylor, was arrested in London in 2017 and charged with eight counts of torture and conspiracy to commit torture as part of her husband’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia, which in the 1990s participated in one of Africa’s bloodiest recent civil wars.
But a judge at the Old Bailey in London, the central criminal court for England and Wales, ruled on Friday that there was not enough evidence to prove that the group had governmental control in the areas where the atrocities were said to have taken place — a requirement for the case to be tried in Britain.
The case had been viewed as an important test for those seeking to see torture in other countries punished in British courts. The country’s Supreme Court decided in a landmark ruling last month that members of nonstate groups that exercised “the functions of government” during armed conflicts could be prosecuted in Britain.
More than 200,000 people died in clashes and atrocities as the National Patriotic Front of Liberia led an insurgency in the 1990s. Mr. Taylor was elected in 1997 but went into exile in 2003. At a trial in The Hague in 2012, he was sentenced to 50 years in prison after he was found guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Ms. Reeves Taylor had been accused of ordering soldiers to rape women and to beat a 13-year-old boy, among other crimes.
British court documents also said that she had ordered soldiers to tie up and torture a woman who refused to be raped by one of Mr. Taylor’s local commanders, and that she later shot and killed the woman’s two children, saying, “See, if you refuse an order, this will happen.”
Ms. Reeves Taylor, 54, has denied the accusations, and said that she had never held any official position in the National Patriotic Front of Liberia.
The Old Bailey judge, Mr. Justice Sweeney, said on Friday that a central question in prosecuting Ms. Reeves Taylor on torture charges was whether “at the time and location of each offense, the N.P.F.L. was exercising governmental function in the relevant area.”
“In my view, the answer in each instance is clearly in the negative,” the judge said in a statement.
Ms. Reeves Taylor watched the ruling by video link from a prison in Britain, according to the BBC and The Associated Press, and was set to be freed.
She claimed asylum in Britain in 2007, but her application to remain indefinitely was rejected in 2016 because of suspicions that she might have committed a crime against humanity or war crimes, according to court documents.
It was unclear whether Ms. Reeves Taylor could now stay in Britain.
The decision on Friday was “heartbreaking for the victims who have waited more than 20 years for their stories to be heard by a court and for justice to be done,” said Emmanuelle Marchand, the head of legal analysis at Civitas Maxima, a group that seeks to provide legal representation for victims of international crimes.
Along with the Liberia-based Global Justice and Research Project, Civitas Maxima provided the British authorities with the initial information to conduct an investigation into Ms. Reeves Taylor.
But Ms. Marchand and other representatives of rights groups said that despite the dismissal on Friday, the Supreme Court decision in November could still pave the way for further prosecutions of members of nonstate groups.
“The Supreme Court has made clear that members of other armed groups that exercise sufficient control, such as ISIS and the Taliban, can be prosecuted for torture under U.K. law,” said Charlie Loudon, an international legal adviser at Redress, an anti-torture group based in Britain.
A spokesman for Bark & Co, the legal firm that represents Ms. Reeves Taylor, welcomed the decision and said in a statement, “Agnes Reeves Taylor is now free to get on with her life and rejoin her loving family.”
“She has been in prison since June 1, 2017, over two and a half years, for a crime she did not commit,” the statement said.