THE HAGUE // In a momentous decision for West Africa and the international justice system, a special court yesterday held the former Liberian president and regional strongman Charles Taylor responsible for crimes against humanity committed by rebel forces he supported in Sierra Leone more than 10 years ago.
The judges had deliberated for more than a year after hearing more than three years of evidence and witness statements involving commanders with nicknames such as Zigzag and Rambo Red Goat. The trial also featured celebrity witnesses such as model Naomi Campbell, who said she had received diamonds from Mr Taylor. More than 50,000 people are estimated to have died in the 1991-2002 civil war in Sierra Leone.
The 64-year old former head of state stood up yesterday and listened impassively as the presiding judge of the UN-backed special court for Sierra Leone found him guilty on charges of aiding and abetting as well as planning crimes including murder, rape, sexual slavery, mutilation, including the widespread severing of limbs, the use of child soldiers and pillage. He was acquitted of having directly ordered the crimes. Mr Taylor had denied all the charges. He will be sentenced next month.
"The important issue is that a big man, a former head of state, still head of state at the time, can be indicted and be brought to justice," Ibrahim Tommy, who heads the Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law in Sierra Leone's capital Freetown, told The National. He said the implications for ending impunity in the region were profound.
Sierra Leone's rebel Revolutionary United Front and other groups supported by Mr Taylor in the country in the 1990s and early 2000s were known for extraordinary brutality and ruthlessness as well as for plundering the country's diamond resources. The court determined that they traded diamonds - called blood or conflict diamonds - with Mr Taylor for arms and ammunition.
"The issue of diamonds and how they financed the RUF, which killed, amputated hands and chopped off limbs, is absolutely critical. The issue was that Charles Taylor funded the RUF basically to get at our diamonds," said Mr Tommy.
It is the first time an international court has convicted a former head of state since the post-Second World War Nuremberg trials when Karl Doenitz, who briefly led Germany after Adolf Hitler’s death, was convicted.
Despite taking more than six years since Mr Taylor was arrested to render a verdict, the ruling goes some way towards validating the many international tribunals that have been set up mainly in and around The Hague. These include the International Criminal Court, which has among others indicted President Omar Bashir of Sudan, and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is looking into the 2005 assassination of the former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
Suliman Baldo, Africa Director of the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York, said: "This sends a strong message to the powerful in Africa and beyond that your position, your formal and traditional immunity, are not going to shield you from responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity."
The verdict addressed some powerful issues internationally and particularly for Africa by establishing responsibility across national borders and for deeds committed by non-state, proxy actors. "That is the face of modern conflict in Africa," said Mr Baldo.
The Liberian-born and American-educated Charles Ghankay Taylor was trained in guerrilla tactics in Libya in the 1980s before forming a rebel faction in his home country in 1989 and becoming one of Africa's most feared warlords. He was elected president in 1997 and held on through various rebellions until 2003, when he resigned after being indicted by the special court for Sierra-Leone for his involvement in that country's civil war. He was handed over to the tribunal in 2006 by Liberia's new and current president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
The verdict was received calmly in Freetown where Mr Tommy said most people, "had expected as much". But in Liberia's capital of Monrovia, where Mr Taylor retains significant support, security forces were on the alert. "The verdict may pose some challenges to the government of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. They have been branding her as a traitor. She gave up a countryman et cetera," said Mr Tommy.
The special court for Sierra Leone is a hybrid court with international involvement set up on the request of Sierra Leone and is based in Freetown where it has so far convicted eight RUF commanders. But it had the trial and Mr Taylor transferred to The Netherlands in 2006 because it was seen as too destabilising to be held in the region.
The trial has been watched closely by organisations interested in international justice. The Sierra Leonean lawyer Alpha Sesay attended the proceedings for the Open Society Justice Initiative and was positive about its conduct. "We are happy that the process has been very credible and that Mr Taylor's fair trial rights have been respected," he said.
He found the testimonies of many of the victims particularly impressive: "People whose arms had been amputated, people who had been victims of sexual abuse, people whose family members had been killed, they were very brave to come and their evidence stood out."