THE HAGUE - Charles G. Taylor, the former president of Liberiaand once a powerful warlord, was convicted by an international tribunal on Thursday of 11 counts of planning, aiding and abetting war crimes committed in Sierra Leone during that country’s civil war in the 1990s. He is the first head of state to be convicted by an international court since the Nuremberg trials after World War II.
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Charles Taylor, seen in 1990 on the outskirts of Monrovia, led the rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia before assuming the country’s presidency.
The ruling, announced by Presiding Judge Richard Lussick of Samoa, said Mr. Taylor was guilty of involvement in crimes against humanity and war crimes including murder, rape, slavery and the use of child soldiers. The court, however, said the prosecution failed to prove that Mr. Taylor had direct command responsibility for the atrocities in the indictment.
Mr. Taylor, who has maintained his innocence, will be sentenced in the coming weeks. There is no death penalty in international criminal law and any jail term would be served in a British prison.
The conflict in Sierra Leone became notorious because of its gruesome tactics, including the calculated mutilation of thousands of civilians, the widespread use of drugged child soldiers and the mining of diamonds to pay for guns and ammunition. A new, sinister rebel vocabulary pointed to the horrors: applying â€œa smileâ€ meant cutting off the upper and lower lips of a victim, giving â€œlong sleevesâ€ meant hacking off the hands and giving â€œshort sleevesâ€ meant cutting the arm above the elbow.
The trial has brought â€œa sense of relief,â€ said Ibrahim Tommy, who leads the Center for Accountability and Rule of Law, a rights group in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, â€œbut I’m not sure it will bring closure to the victims.â€ Even so, Mr. Tommy said, the trial was â€œa genuine effort to ensure accountability for the crimes in Sierra Leone.â€
In Liberia, Mr. Taylor’s supporters have maintained that he is the victim of an American witch hunt, but others lament that his former associates have prospered and play a role in the new government.
The tribunal, called Special Court for Sierra Leone, which has its main seat in Freetown, has already sentenced eight other leading members from different forces and rebel groups for crimes in Sierra Leone.
Largely an initiative of the United States and Britain, the court was established in 2002 in partnership between the United Nations and Sierra Leone to prosecute those responsible for atrocities in a conflict that led almost half the population to flee and left an estimated 50,000 dead.
The fighting for control over one of the world’s poorest regions also involved Liberia, where many more died, and threatened to spill over into neighboring Guinea and Ivory Coast. But only crimes in Sierra Leone between 1996 and 2002 are within the court’s mandate.
Mr. Taylor is the special court’s last defendant. His trial was moved here, to The Hague, for fear of causing unrest in the region where he still has followers.
During the lengthy trial, which began in 2006, judges from Ireland, Samoa and Uganda heard testimony from 115 witnesses, many from the region who had never traveled before.
Before the formally robed court officers, they spoke of slave labor in captured diamond mines, episodes of cannibalism, rape, severed heads displayed on stakes to terrorize people and captured villagers lining up, waiting to have their limbs hacked off.
There were many chilling moments, as witnesses described the barbarism of the rebels, gesticulating with the stumps of amputated limbs swaddled in bandages.
Mustapha Mansary, a villager, was twice asked by the defense lawyer if he could read and write English, until he held up his two bandaged stumps.
â€œI have no hands to write anything,â€ Mr. Mansary replied.
But prosecutors struggled with a legal puzzle of how to link them to Mr. Taylor. There was no paper trail showing orders. There was no record of Mr. Taylor ever going to Sierra Leone. He was not at the scene of the crimes, and they were not committed by the army of Liberia, which was under his command.
To build their case, prosecutors used radio and telephone intercepts and brought in radio operators who had connected Mr. Taylor’s mansion in Monrovia to the rebels in the bush in Sierra Leone.
People close to Mr. Taylor, his head of security, bodyguards and other associates, some of whom were relocated abroad as protected witnesses, testified about arms and ammunition shipments for the rebels and to seeing raw diamonds arriving as payment.
Bank records were displayed in court, showing how tax payments and other government income moved into Mr. Taylor’s accounts, ostensibly to pay for the war effort, or for himself.
Defense lawyers dismissed much of the evidence as hearsay. And they repeatedly said the trial was a political exercise by Western countries who wanted to keep Mr. Taylor out of West Africa.
Much of the court’s budget has been paid for by voluntary contributions from the United States, Britain, Canada and The Netherlands.
To support their argument, the defense presented as evidence two secret diplomatic cables from 2009, part of the cache revealed by WikiLeaks, in which American diplomats wrote about Mr. Taylor.
One, dated March 2009, quoted the American ambassador to Liberia as saying that â€œthe best we can do for Liberia is to see that Charles Taylor is put away for a long time.â€ The most important defense witness was Mr. Taylor himself. Eloquent and respectful of the court, he managed to remain on the witness stand for more than 50 days, giving his version of his life and his role as a peacemaker, without the judges cutting off his many off-topic digressions.
He told the court that had he been trained in Libya, once received money from Muammar el-Qaddafi for â€œmedical expenses.â€ While he was in a Massachusetts jail awaiting extradition on charges of embezzling $900,000 of Liberian government funds, he said, he was let out with the help of the Central Intelligence Agency.
In 2010, the focus turned briefly to the question of whether Mr. Taylor – who has denied ever carrying or trading diamonds – gave some gems to the supermodel Naomi Campbell13 years earlier in South Africa after a dinner with Mr. Taylor, Nelson Mandela and others on the eve of a celebrity charity event.
His lawyer raised all the subjects that had made him and his associates notorious: trading diamonds for weapons, widespread rape, cutting off the hands and feet of villagers, allowing Mr. Taylor to say that he would â€œnever, everâ€ have permitted such crimes.
The many tales from his life, replete with details from his career as a rebel, a prisoner, a negotiator and a president, were followed by a large radio audience at home in Liberia.
No one knows exactly how many were killed or maimed in the intertwined civil wars of Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s. Human rights groups have said that besides those killed outright, close to 4,000 amputees did not survive and up to 3,500 mutilated victims are believed to be still alive in Sierra Leone. Numerous former child soldiers are still in rehabilitation homes.
Original article can be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/27/world/africa/charles-taylor-liberia-sierra-leone-war-crimes-court-verdict.html?