By Tamara Alfred
Impunity Watch Reporter, Africa
On Thursday, former Liberian President Charles Taylor, 64, was found guilty by an international criminal tribunal of aiding and abetting war crimes, in neighboring Sierra Leone’s civil war, that ultimately left 50,000 dead or missing.
Taylor’s conviction is the first war crimes conviction of a former head of state by an international court since the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders following World War II.
After 13 months of deliberation, a panel of three judges from Ireland, Samoa and Uganda issued the unanimous decision that Taylor was “criminally responsible” for aiding and abetting crimes during a protracted and notoriously brutal civil war. Taylor had been accused of murder, rape, sexual slavery, conscripting children under the age of 15 and mining diamonds to pay for guns.
“This judgment affirms that with leadership comes not just power and authority, but also responsibility and accountability,” said Prosecutor Brenda Hollis. “No person, no matter how powerful, is above the law.”
United Nations (UN) human rights chief Navi Pillay echoed these sentiments, describing the conviction as “immensely significant,” saying it sends out a message that even the most powerful are not above the law.
“[T]his is undoubtedly a historic moment in the development of international justice,” said Pillay. “A former president, who once wielded immense influence in a neighboring country where tens of thousands of people were killed, mutilated, raped, robbed and repeatedly displaced for years on end, has been arrested, tried in a fair and thorough international procedure.”
One disappointing note issued by Justice Richard Lussick of the Special Court for Sierra Leone states that prosecutors failed to prove that Taylor had direct command over the rebels who committed the various atrocities.
Taylor, who remained stoic throughout the reading of the verdict, had maintained his innocence and pleaded not guilty to all charges against him.
In Freetown, Sierra Leone, where every television set was tuned in to the reading of the verdict, the mood was sharply contrasted from Taylor’s own.
“Relief. Relief,” said Jennifer Harold, national director of the charity, World Vision. “Everybody is thrilled.”
“The trial is very important to all victims because it will help to hear our wounds,” Jabati Mambu, who lost his right hand in the war, told the Associated Press. Mambu said the tribunal is a landmark in efforts to end impunity for leaders who sponsor rebellion.
Ibrahim Tommy, who leads the Center for Accountability and Rule of Law – a rights group in Freetown, had a slightly different viewpoint. While he says the trial has brought “a sense of relief,” he told The New York Times, “I’m not sure it will bring closure to the victims,” but the trial was “a genuine effort to ensure accountability for the crimes in Sierra Leone.”
And yet, for the thousands of young men whose limbs were hacked off, the teenage boys sent into battle high on drugs, and the pubescent girls turned into sex slaves, the trial and verdict come much too late. Regardless of Taylor’s guilty verdict, these victims will harbor unspeakable memories until the day they die, and numerous questions will remain about the atrocities and Taylor’s relationship with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels.
Taylor’s life has never failed to be an interesting one. Taylor was born in Liberia, studied economics in the United States (US), escaped from a Massachusetts jail after being charged with embezzlement, before ultimately becoming a pivotal figure in Liberian politics after he overthrew the regime of Samuel Doe in 1989, plunging the country into a bloody civil war that left 200,000 dead over the next 14 years. Taylor became president of Liberia in 1997, where he remained until 2003, when heavy international pressure forced him out of office. At that point, he lived in exile in Nigeria, where he was arrested in 2006 attempting to cross the border into Chad.
The trial was a meticulous one, beginning in 2007 at the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) in The Hague, after it was moved following initial proceedings in Sierra Leone where emotions about the war still run high. UN officials and the Sierra Leone government jointly set up the tribunal to try those who played the biggest role in the war atrocities.
Producing almost 50,000 pages of transcript and over a thousand exhibits, Taylor’s trial offered unique insights into Liberian and Sierra Leonean history, as well as uncovered two diametrically opposed views of Taylor’s role in West Africa. In Taylor’s version, he is a peacemaker for the international community. In the prosecution’s version, Taylor represents the darkest corner of Africa.
Throughout the high-profile trial, judges heard testimony from more than 100 people, including Taylor himself and supermodel Naomi Campbell. Prosecutors cast Taylor as a ruthless leader who as president of neighboring Liberia funneled weapons, ammunition and other equipment to Sierra Leone rebels in return for diamonds mined by slave laborers in Sierra Leone. Witnesses testified to the grisly violence by the rebels, including chopping off the arms of civilians and shooting and disemboweling pregnant women and children. Some spoke of being asked if they wanted “long sleeves or short sleeves” – either the hacking off of hands or the entire forearm. Others, like former secret service agent Joseph Marzah, known as ‘Zigzag,’ confessed to displaying “heads on sticks and car bumpers,” killing babies, cutting open pregnant women and eating “Nigerians and white people.” Meanwhile, during Taylor’s own seven months on the witness stand, Taylor portrayed himself as a statesman and regional peacemaker.
“Brave men, women and children have taken the stand against Charles Taylor,” the prosecutor’s office said in a written statement. “They have included amputees, rape victims, former child soldiers, and persons enslaved, robbed, and terrorized. We are awed by their courage.”
The man who indicted Taylor, US lawyer and Impunity Watch’s founder, David Crane, says “a clarion bell rang out clearly around the world today, the clear sound of justice, putting on notice that tyrants who kill their own citizens and others will be held accountable.”
With the pronouncement of the guilty verdict, a sentencing hearing is set for May 16. With no death penalty in international criminal law, Taylor would serve out any sentence in a British prison.
For more information, please see:
BBC News – Charles Taylor guilty of aiding Sierra Leone war crimes – 26 April 2012
CNN – Court finds Charles Taylor guilty of aiding war crimes – 26 April 2012
The New York Times – Ex-President of Liberia Aided War Crimes, Court Rules – 26 April 2012
Radio Netherlands Worldwide – Sierra Leone: Taylor Trial a Triumph for International Justice, but Case Stirs Up Cordoned-Off Past – 25 April 2012
The Washington Post – Charles Taylor verdict expected in international court’s war-crimes trial – 25 April 2012
Time – Judges to Deliver Verdicts in Taylor Trial – 24 April 2012