Former Liberia Leader, Charles Taylor has been found guilty of war crimes, ending years of long trial and another humiliation of an African leader, propped up by foreign interest and fallen by same .
In a historic ruling, an international court convicted the former Liberian President on Thursday of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity for supporting notoriously brutal rebels in neighbouring Sierra Leone in return for “blood diamonds.”
Mr. Taylor is the first head of state convicted by an international court since the post-World War II Nuremberg military tribunal.
“Today is for the people of Sierra Leone who suffered horribly at the hands of Charles Taylor and his proxy forces,” said prosecutor Brenda Hollis. “This judgment brings some measure of justice to the many thousands of victims who paid a terrible price for Mr. Taylor’s crimes.”
Prosecutors and defence lawyers both said they would study the lengthy judgment to see if there were grounds for appeal.
Mr. Taylor’s attorney, Courtenay Griffiths, slammed the conviction as based on “tainted and corrupt evidence.” He claimed prosecutors paid for some of the evidence.
Mr. Griffiths said Mr. Taylor took the verdicts in his stride: “Mr. Taylor has always been a stoic individual and he continued to display that stoicism,” Mr. Griffiths told reporters.
Presiding Judge Richard Lussick said the 64-year-old warlord-turned-president provided arms, ammunition, communications equipment and planning to rebels responsible for countless atrocities in the 1991-2002 Sierra Leone civil war and was repaid by the guerrillas in so-called “blood diamonds” mined by slave laborers.
Judge Lussick called the support “sustained and significant.”
“Mr. Taylor, the trial chamber unanimously finds you guilty” of 11 charges, including terror, murder, rape and conscripting child soldiers, Judge Lussick told Mr. Taylor.
Mr. Taylor stood and showed no emotion as Judge Lussick delivered the guilty verdicts at the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Judge Lussick scheduled a sentencing hearing for May 16, and said sentence would be announced two weeks later. Mr. Taylor will serve his sentence in Britain.
The court does not have maximum sentences or the death penalty. In the past, convicted Sierra Leone rebel leaders have received sentences of up to 52 years.
Human rights activists hailed the convictions as a watershed moment in the fight against impunity for national leaders responsible for atrocities.
“Taylor’s conviction sends powerful messages that even those in the highest level positions can be held to account for grave crimes,” said Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch. “Not since Nuremberg has an international or hybrid war crimes court issued a judgment against a current or former head of state. This is a victory for Sierra Leonean victims, and all those seeking justice when the worst abuses are committed.”
Mr. Taylor had pleaded not guilty to all counts, claiming in seven months of testimony in his own defence that he was a statesman and peacemaker in West Africa.
While judges convicted him of aiding and abetting atrocities by rebels, they cleared him of direct command responsibility, saying he had no direct control over the rebels he supported.
His lawyer pounced on that finding, saying the judges “rejected large areas of the prosecution theory.”
He portrayed Mr. Taylor as the leader of a small and impoverished African nation struggling to protect its borders. Mr. Griffiths also dismissed evidence given by the most famous prosecution witness — supermodel Naomi Campbell, who told judges she had received diamonds at a function in South Africa, but did not link them to Mr. Taylor. Her testimony was “a large, fat, zero,” the lawyer said.
The only other head of state convicted by an international court was a Nazi naval commander, Karl Doenitz, who briefly led Germany after Adolf Hitler’s suicide and was convicted by a military tribunal at Nuremberg after World War II.
A large number of Liberian police and UN soldiers were deployed in downtown Monrovia as the UN-backed court handed down its verdict.
There was to be no let-up, as rebels rose up against Taylor in 1999, forcing him to flee to Nigeria in 2003 from where he was later extradited to The Hague.
Taylor retains significant pockets of support back home.
The government on Thursday called “on all Liberians, irrespective of our social and political difference, to respect the verdict of the special court and continue to pray for enduring peace and unity in the nation.”
But there is also deep bitterness in Liberia where the atrocities Taylor caused as warlord and president have gone unpunished.
“This will serve as a deterrent for other African leaders who like to suck innocent blood,” said Monrovia resident Mohamed Keita as he digested the verdict from the Netherlands in a bar in the Liberian capital.
Keita was one of many Liberians who had been keeping a close eye on events near The Hague where Taylor became the first former head of state to be found guilty by an international court since the 1946 Nuremberg trials.
Samuel Yarkpah, a doctor in Monrovia, bemoaned that others who had blood on their hands were still at large, both in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
“Charles Taylor was tried only for what he did in Sierra Leone. But people have done worse than that in Liberia and today they are in Liberia, free to move around. Nothing has been done about that,” Yarkpah, 37, told AFP.
Taylor led a group of rebels into Liberia in 1989 in a bid to overthrow the hated regime of Samuel Doe, a move which descended into bloody civil war with a panoply of warring factions.
Since Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took power in 2005, Liberia has managed to turn its back on conflict but the situation remains fragile as evidenced by the tensions over her re-election last year which the opposition said was fixed.
A Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report released in 2009 named Taylor among those who should be prosecuted for war crimes, and suggested a list of people including Sirleaf be barred from office.
Sirleaf admitted financing Taylor in the early days of his rebellion before she realised the extent of his atrocities.
For Anita Williams, another resident of Monrovia, Thursday’s verdict should not be a cause for celebration but could instead be a portent for trouble.
“This verdict against president Taylor should not be seen as a victory or justice. We have to start thinking on how this is to affect the fragile peace in Liberia,” said the 49-year-old.
“If you look up in the sky, you will see the dark cloud surrounding the sun. It is not a good sign for our country. The Lord is trying to tell us that there are still problems ahead.”
The Globe and Mail/ AFP