Former Liberian President Charles Taylor could be jailed for the rest of his life on Wednesday when he is sentenced by an international court for backing Sierra Leonean rebels in their war of murder, rape and mutilation. By Thomas Escritt
Prosecutors seek an 80-year sentence for Taylor, 64 – the first head of state convicted by an international court since World War Two – and the decision could set a precedent for other war crimes courts.
The Special Court for Sierra Leone ruled last month that Taylor aided and abetted Revolutionary United Front rebels during an 11-year war which left 50,000 dead in Liberia’s West African neighbour by 2002.
The rebels raped and murdered civilians. They hacked off the limbs of thousands of people in a campaign of terror while Taylor profited from trading in so-called blood diamonds that helped finance the conflict.
The court’s judges said Taylor knew about the brutality and had nonetheless helped equip and fund the rebels, giving them satellite phones and money.
“Charles Taylor’s sentence should reflect the gravity of his heinous crimes,” said Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch.
“Sentencing is a crucial step in bringing redress to Sierra Leonean victims and reinforcing the principle that no one is above the law – not even a head of state.”
Not since the Nazi trials at Nuremberg has a head of state been found guilty by an international tribunal, and Taylor’s sentencing could also set a precedent.
The International Criminal Court, which recently marked its 10th anniversary, will soon begin the trial of Laurent Gbagbo, the former Ivory Coast president, who faces charges of crimes against humanity.
Accused of genocide, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir is also wanted by the court.
Over the course of Taylor’s six-year trial, the court heard gruesome testimony.
“A civilian was killed in full public view and then his body was disembowelled and his intestines stretched across the road to make a checkpoint. Women and children were raped in public, people were burned alive in their homes,” presiding judge Richard Lussick said at Taylor’s conviction.
“The purpose of these atrocities was to instil terror in the civilian population.”
Prosecutors said the U.S.-educated Taylor’s position of authority and level of education were aggravating factors and should mean a longer sentence – to be served at a British high security prison.
But although judges convicted Taylor of planning, aiding and abetting the crimes in Sierra Leone, he was not found guilty of either ordering or planning the atrocities.
His defence team and legal experts said this meant he should get a shorter sentence.
At a sentencing hearing, Taylor accused chief prosecutor Brenda Hollis of being a CIA agent – a claim she laughed off – and said the trial was politically motivated.
“Regime change in Liberia became a policy of the U.S. government,” he told the court. “I never stood a chance.”
Both sides are likely to appeal.
The defence is expected to focus on payments the prosecution made to its witnesses, which it said were prejudicial. Hollis says all payments were disclosed to the court and were legitimate expenses.
The prosecution could seek Taylor’s conviction for direct criminal involvement, a more serious crime. DM
Photo: Charles Taylor (Reuters)
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine