JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- David M. Crane, founding prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, said Thursday’s conviction of former Liberian President Charles Taylor for war crimes and crimes against humanity was “hugely significant.”
Taylor is the first former head of state to be convicted of war crimes in an international court or hybrid international-national court since the Nuremburg trials that followed World War II.
“A very clear bell has rung across the world saying that dictators and thugs who kill their own people will be held responsible for that atrocity,” Crane said in a phone interview from The Hague.
Crane, a law professor at Syracuse University who drafted the 2003 indictment of Taylor, flew to The Hague for the verdict.
Taylor, 64, was found guilty aiding and abetting Sierra Leone rebels in 11 crimes, including murder, terrorizing civilians, rape, sexual slavery, and recruiting and using child soldiers during Sierra Leone’s bloody 1991-2002 civil war.
Crane said it sent a strong message that leaders who committed atrocities would face justice.
He predicted that Taylor would remain behind bars for the rest of his life. He said the fact that Taylor was found guilty of "aiding and abetting" the war crimes did not imply a lesser conviction than being found guilty of being in the chain of command.
“He’s been found guilty, as charged, of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He’s going to get a very stiff sentence, which will amount to life imprisonment," said Crane.
Taylor's lawyers, who tried to have the case thrown out during the trial, argue that the case is political, designed to keep Taylor out of power in Liberia.
The former Liberian president played a role in conflict and instability across several West African countries, arming and supporting militias across the region, but Thursday’s verdict at the U.N.-backed special court relates to his role in Sierra Leone’s war, where around 50,000 people died.
Critics have questioned the Liberian government’s failure to ensure prosecution of Taylor and others for alleged war crimes in the 1989-1995 Liberian civil war which killed some 200,000. But Crane said while the international justice system was new, and wasn't perfect, justice had been done.
Taylor became president in 1997. He stepped down in 2003, several months after being indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, taking advantage of an offer of safe haven by Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo.
Obansanjo made the deal to protect Taylor from prosecution on condition he stay out of Liberian politics. But the deal was ditched after Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf came to power in 2005 elections and requested that Nigeria hand over Taylor to stand trial at the Special Court for Sierra Leone in 2006.
Critics in Africa have argued that repudiating Taylor’s amnesty deal has made it more difficult to remove tyrants, making them more likely to cling to power, often violently.
“It’s an important point,” said Crane. “It’s peace versus justice. Sometimes justice has to wait until there is peace. But certainly justice has to be done. At the end of the day you have to have justice because the people who suffered and saw members of their families suffer, demand it.”
The verdict was hailed by human rights organizations.
"Powerful leaders like Charles Taylor have for too long lived comfortably above the law,” said Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch’s international justice program. “Taylor’s conviction sends a powerful message that even those in the highest-level positions can be held to account for grave crimes."
Amnesty International deputy director for Sierra Leone, Brima Abdulai Sheriff, welcomed Taylor’s conviction but said thousands of others who were criminally responsible for abuses had never been investigated or prosecuted. He said a limited number of victims had received reparations.
“This verdict can also be seen as a reminder for Taylor’s home country Liberia that those responsible for the crimes committed during Liberia’s conflict must be brought to justice,” Sheriff said in an emailed statement.