LONDON -- In a landmark case, former Liberian President Charles Taylor has been convicted of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity through his arming of ruthless rebel groups in neighboring Sierra Leone in exchange for so-called blood diamonds.
An international war crimes tribunal announced Thursday that it had found Taylor guilty of "sustained and significant" support for the rebels who engaged in a long campaign of terror, murder, rape, sexual slavery and enlistment of child soldiers. However, he was found not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of ordering those abuses himself.
Still, it was a milestone verdict in a case that has been seen as an important test of the international justice system. Taylor, 64, is the first former head of state to have a judgment brought against him by an international court since the Nuremberg trials after World War II.
The verdict followed a year of deliberations by the judges of the Special Court of Sierra Leone just outside The Hague. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for May 16; Taylor could be imprisoned for life.
His trial lasted five years, during which the court heard a catalog of horrific acts committed by rebels whom Taylor helped arm in Sierra Leone’s civil war. The war ended in 2002 after more than a decade of fighting and more than 50,000 deaths. The rebels backed by Taylor became particularly known for hacking off the limbs of their perceived enemies and carving words onto their bodies.
They also recruited children to fight and terrorized the civilian population through rape, looting and burning down homes. Crucial to their campaign were the weapons they bought from Taylor and paid for with what came to be known as “conflict" or "blood" diamonds, because of their role in fueling conflict in Africa.
At one point during the trial, supermodel Naomi Campbell testified to receiving diamonds from Taylor at a banquet hosted by South African President Nelson Mandela. Actress Mia Farrow also testified regarding that incident.
Taylor, a warlord-turned-elected president, was indicted in 2003, arrested in 2006 and eventually flown to The Hague for trial. Conducting the proceedings in Sierra Leone itself was deemed potentially too destabilizing for West Africa.
Taylor pleaded innocent to 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He testified for seven months in his own defense, portraying himself as a statesman, peacemaker and victim of a witch hunt by “vindictive” former colonial powers intent on keeping him out of power. His lawyers acknowledged that terrible abuses took place during Sierra Leone’s civil war but argued that he was not responsible for them.
The prosecution disagreed, describing him as the “godfather” of the rebels. Prosecutors called 94 witnesses and backed up its case with nearly 800 exhibits admitted into evidence. Taylor’s defense team called 21 witnesses.
Another former African leader, Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast, is now awaiting trial at The Hague.
-- Henry Chu
Photo: A journalist records the speech by former Liberian President Charles Taylor (on screen) during his trial at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, based in Leidschendam outside The Hague. Credit: Peter Dejong / AFP Photo, Pool