The first African president to be prosecuted at an international court has been found guilty of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity for supporting rebels who carried out atrocities in Sierra Leone in return for “blood diamonds”.
The historic judgment leaves Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, facing a lengthy term in a British prison and will set a precedent that heads of state can no longer consider themselves immune to international justice.
After four years of hearings at the UN-backed special court for Sierra Leone in the Hague, the former warlord was convicted on 11 charges including murder, rape, sexual slavery and enforced amputations.
The three-judge panel unanimously found that he had been criminally responsible for “aiding and abetting” the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and other factions carrying out atrocities in Sierra Leone between 1996 and 2002.
The court heard that the Liberian leader knew from August 1997 about the campaign of terror being waged against the civilian population in Sierra Leone.
Among the atrocities detailed was the beheading of civilians. Victims’ heads were often displayed at checkpoints. On one occasion a man was killed, publicly disembowelled and his intestines stretched across a road to form another checkpoint. “The purpose,” Judge Richard Lussick said, “was to instil terror”.
Wearing a blue suit and red tie, Taylor showed no emotion as Lussick delivered the guilty verdict. Taylor was found not guilty of either ordering or planning the atrocities. But Lussick said that Taylor told RUF commanders to seize and hold the diamond producing areas of Sierra Leone so that he could continue trading arms and ammunition in return for looted diamonds.
He is expected to serve his sentence in a British jail once the appeal process has been completed.
In the course of the trial, the British model Naomi Campbell and American actor Mia Farrow were called as witnesses as the prosecution attempted to show that Taylor was knowingly handling blood diamonds.
Prosecutors said that Taylor had sent a pouch of uncut gems to Campbell after a dinner in Pretoria in September 1997 hosted by Nelson Mandela. Campbell told the court she had no idea who had sent her the diamonds, which she called “dirty little pebbles”.
Prosecutor Brenda Hollis welcomed the guilty verdict as bringing “some measure of justice to the many thousands of victims who paid a terrible price for Mr Taylor’s crimes.
“[This] judgment reinforces the new reality, that heads of state will be held to account for war crimes … With leadership comes not just power and authority, but also responsibility and accountability. No person, no matter how powerful, is above the law.”
Taylor’s lead counsel, Courtenay Griffiths QC, said that the conviction was based on “tainted and corrupt evidence, and accused the international justice community of targeting African leaders excessively. “I have for long expressed my concerns about the way in which international justice has been targeting African countries,” he said. “All those currently awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court are from Africa.”
In Sierra Leone, the verdict was met with relief mingled with frustration. “There is an impunity gap. The foot soldiers who held the machete, the ones who raped and burnt – to the common man there is a sense of bitterness these people are walking free,” said Souleymane Jabah, outside the Freetown-based court.
Taylor is the first former head of state to face judgment in an international court on war crimes charges since judges in Nuremberg convicted Karl Doenitz, an admiral who led Nazi Germany for a brief period following Adolf Hitler’s suicide.
Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav president, faced trial by an international criminal tribunal, but he died before a judgment was issued.
Human Rights Watch said the trial of Taylor signalled an end to an era of impunity. “Taylor’s trial has immense significance for people in the West African sub-region who suffered as a consequence of the violence and instability he allegedly fomented in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire,” the organisation said.
The cost of the Charles Taylor trial may have been as much as $50 million, according to Stephen Rapp, the court’s former prosecutor who is now US Ambassador At Large for war crimes. The overall cost of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which was established in 2002 is estimated at $200 million.
Taylor has 14 days from the receipt of the full judgment to file a written notice of appeal with the registrar against his convictions. His sentencing has been scheduled for 30 May.
The foreign secretary, William Hague, said: “This landmark verdict demonstrates that those who have committed the most serious of crimes can and will be held to account for their actions; it demonstrates that the reach of international law is long and not time limited and it demonstrates that heads of state cannot hide behind immunity. The verdict can only be a small comfort for the victims and relatives of those killed but the court’s authoritative view of what occurred will play an important role in helping the people of Sierra Leone come to terms with the past and consolidate national reconciliation.”