Taylor gets 50 years for role in war crimes


CHARLES TAYLOR, the former Liberian president, has been sentenced to 50 years in prison for aiding war crimes, in a judgment that human rights advocates said sets a precedent for cases against heads of state who violate international law.

After a five-year trial, the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague convicted Taylor last month on 11 charges of aiding and abetting rebel militias who committed vicious atrocities during the civil war in the west African country from 1998 to 2002. Taylor supported the rebels, planned operations with them, and provided them with ammunition in exchange for diamonds from Sierra Leone’s rich mines.

Those convicted of aiding and abetting crimes usually receive shorter sentences than the perpetrators. But Richard Lussick of Samoa, the presiding judge, noted when delivering the sentence yesterday that Taylor’s status as a head of state was an aggravating factor when considering the sentence. Taylor is the first former head of state convicted of crimes against humanity since the end of the second World War.

“As president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces of Liberia, Mr Taylor used his unique position to aid and abet the commission of crimes in Sierra Leone, rather than using his power to promote peace and stability,” Mr Lussick said.

Prosecutors showed that even while publicly mediating peace talks between the rebels and government in the early 2000s, Taylor was secretly conspiring with the rebels.

Before pronouncing sentence, Mr Lussick underlined the gravity of the crimes by recounting a few of the most savage atrocities to which witnesses had testified during the trial. One woman had been forced by rebels to carry to another village a bag full of human heads. She found it contained those of her own children.

Brenda Hollis, the former US military attorney who prosecuted the case, had asked for an 80-year sentence but said she was broadly satisfied with the ruling, calling it “important that those responsible for criminal violations on a massive scale not be given a volume discount”. However, she said she would study the judgment and might appeal for a longer sentence.

Human rights advocates said the court’s attitude towards Taylor’s crimes would be important as international justice is slowly extended to other conflict areas around the world. “The precedent that being a head of state is an aggravating factor that justifies a higher sentence is very significant,” said Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner of Human Rights Watch.

“I hope in the future that other heads of states involved in serious crimes, and I have in mind [Syrian president] Bashar al-Assad – I hope he’s watching the news and hearing this.”

The rebel militias Taylor backed, the Revolutionary United Front and Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, plunged Sierra Leone into terrifying anarchy in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The militias’ methods of ruling the areas they controlled involved slavery, mass murder, sexual servitude, kidnapping of child soldiers, and the mass amputation of civilians’ limbs.

Prosecutors used testimony from over a hundred witnesses as well as radio intercepts and other evidence to show Taylor had conspired with the militias and helped plan campaigns such as “Operation No Living Thing”.

Defence counsel Courtenay Griffiths said Taylor would appeal both the verdict and the sentence. He called the verdict “selective justice”, saying it would be legitimate only if leaders of western countries such as the US and UK were also prosecuted for supporting forces that commit human rights violations in other countries.

But Mr Lussick rejected a long string of defence arguments for mitigating factors, noting that Taylor had never accepted responsibility for the rebels’ crimes or expressed remorse.

He dismissed the defence’s attempt to distinguish between Taylor’s role in planning and supporting the rebels’ military operations and the atrocities carried out during the operations. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012)