In the spotlight: Charles Taylor
Liberia’s former President Charles Taylor has been found guilty of aiding and abetting war crimes during the brutal civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone and was sentenced to 50 years in prison. He became the first former Head of State to be convicted of war crimes by an international court since the Nuremburg trials of Nazis after World War 2.
Taylor, 64 years old, was President from 1997 to 2003. Presiding Judge Richard Lussick, in handing down the sentence, said that Taylor “has been found guilty of aiding and abetting as well as planning some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history.”
The trial has attracted international attention given the severity of the allegations made against him and his status as a former President. He was charged and found guilty on eleven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity over his alleged role in the brutal civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone, where he was accused of backing rebels belonging to the Revolutionary United Front responsible for widespread atrocities.
The Judge at the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone found that Taylor, though not directly involved in the rebel activities, aided and abetted the process by way of supplying weapons and selling diamonds to the rebels, who allegedly were notorious for cutting off the hands and legs of civilians.
According to the Judge, Taylor knew full well that the rebels were guilty of serious atrocities against the civilian population and therefore could not escape criminal responsibility. Taylor for his part argued that he only dealt with the rebels in order to facilitate peace talks, something which the Judge did not find credible.
The question that may be asked is how this trial came about in the first place, given the fact that Taylor was a former President of a sovereign state. The story goes like this: Taylor, in an effort to bring an end to the civil war which had engulfed the country, was granted asylum in Nigeria. He escaped from custody following an extradition request from the new Liberian government led by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf who took office in January 2006. He was subsequently recaptured and repatriated to Liberia where a UN helicopter took him to Sierra Leone in the custody of the Hague tribunal.
It is interesting to note that the trial initially commenced in Sierra Leone to allow victims of the alleged crimes to see justice at work but was shifted to the Netherlands in order not to spark fresh instability in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
This case attracted much attention due to some of the high profile witnesses who were called to testify and the bizarre nature of some of the alleged atrocities. Supermodel Naomi Campbell told the court that she received “dirty-looking stones” from Taylor in September 1997 at a charity dinner hosted in South Africa by the then President Nelson Mandela. Another guest at the dinner, US actress Mia Farrow testified that she was present when the offer was made, a key testimony by the prosecution to establish that Taylor was making use of “blood diamonds” to provide support to the rebels in Sierra Leone.
The allegations made against the rebels were heinous and barbaric. These included cutting off the limbs of their victims and cutting open pregnant women to settle bets over the sex of their unborn children, not to mention the numerous cases of rape and torture. One witness spoke of being forced to carry a bag containing human heads. On the way, the rebels ordered her to laugh as she carried the bag dripping with blood. Upon arrival, the bag was emptied and she saw the heads of her children.
According to a BBC Report, Taylor showed no remorse during the sentencing and instead accused the prosecution of ‘bribing’ witnesses during his trial proceedings. He maintained that the entire process had been politically motivated, a statement that did not go down well with many of his fellow countrymen and certainly not with the thousands of Sierra Leoneans who experienced the pain and sufferings at the hands of the rebel groups. One woman whose husband was killed during the days of Taylor’s rule put it this way; “ Today I join Sierra Leoneans in saying this should be a lesson to people that God has his own way of bringing judgement to people.’
It is interesting to see how this case will eventually end. Of course, there is recourse to appeal, but if the sentence is upheld, it would mean that Taylor would spend the remainder of his life behind bars, most probably in the United Kingdom. For now he is still in custody in the Hague, pending the results of his appeal.