A UN-backed court jailed Liberia’s Charles Taylor for 50 years Wednesday for fuelling Sierra Leone’s savage war, known for its mutilations, drugged child soldiers and sex slaves.
The former Liberian president, 64, was convicted last month of all 11 counts he faced of war crimes and crimes against humanity for aiding and abetting Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front during the country’s 1991-2001 civil war.
In return, he was paid in “blood diamonds” mined by slave labour in areas under control of the rebels, who murdered, raped and kept sex slaves, hacked off limbs and forced children aged under 15 to fight, the court found.
“The accused has been found responsible for aiding and abetting some of the most heinous crimes in human history,” said Special Court for Sierra Leone judge Richard Lussick, reading out the ruling on Wednesday.
He detailed a litany of horrors, including rebels cutting open pregnant women “to settle bets on the sex of a child.” Many witnesses were “weeping as they testified. Their suffering will be life-long,” Lussick said.
“The trial chamber noticed that the effects of these crimes on the families and society as a whole in Sierra Leone was devastating,” the judge said at the hearing in Leidschendam, just outside The Hague.
It was the first sentence against a former head of state in an international court since the Nuremberg Nazi trials in 1946.
Taylor — with gold-rimmed glasses and cropped greying hair, a dark suit and gold tie — listened with his eyes closed as the judge handed down the sentence, which Taylor’s team, and prosecutors, have two weeks to appeal.
Chief prosecutor Brenda Hollis had asked for 80 years’ prison and said her team would study the sentence before deciding whether to appeal.
“The sentence… does not replace amputated limbs, does not bring back to life those who were murdered,” she said.
“It does not heal the wounds of those victims of sexual violence and does not remove the permanent emotional and
psychological scars of those enslaved or recruited as child soldiers.
“But it brings back some measure of justice… for those fortunate enough to survive.”
Taylor’s legal team indicated it would appeal.
In Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown, hundreds of survivors of the war, which claimed 120,000 lives, watched the proceedings in silence on a large TV screen.
Among them was Al Hadji Jusu Jarka, former chairman of the association of amputees, who had both his arms cut off by the rebels.
“The curtain has now been drawn on Charles Taylor,” he said. “I hope he will be haunted by his deeds as he languishes in jail.”
Sierra Leone hailed the sentencing as “welcome news to both government and the nation”.
“It is a step forward as justice has been done,” Deputy Information Minister Sheku Tarawali said.
In Monrovia, some Liberians said they felt humiliated by Taylor’s sentence, while others voiced relief that a dark chapter in the history of the two neighbouring countries had been brought to a close.
But many remain deeply bitter that the atrocities of Taylor’s reign as a warlord in his own country have gone unpunished.
“To judge Mr. Taylor for what occurred in Sierra Leone and ignore what occurred in Liberia is for me a betrayal from the part of the international community,” said Ruth Mendee, 43.
“My two children were raped in front of me, and those who did it are still here. I agree that justice must be done for what happened in Sierra Leone, but are we Liberians not humans who deserve justice?”
Taylor’s lawyer Courtenay Griffiths however said the sentence meant that “effectively Charles Taylor will die in prison”.
Judge Lussick said that Taylor, as president from 1997 to 2003, “held a position of public trust and higher authority, which he abused”.
Throughout the trial, Taylor maintained his innocence and insisted he was instrumental in eventually ending Sierra Leone’s civil war.
But the judge said that Taylor “secretly… was fueling hostilities”.
The ex-president will now remain in the UN’s detention unit in The Hague until appeal procedures are finalised, his lawyers said. The process could still take several months.
Taylor’s sentence will be served in a British prison under a 2007 deal to put him on trial in the Netherlands-based court.
The nearly four-year trial, which wrapped up in March 2011, saw several high-profile witnesses testify.
Among them was supermodel Naomi Campbell, who told of a gift of “dirty diamonds” she received in 1997 after a charity ball hosted by South Africa’s then-president Nelson Mandela.
Nigeria arrested Taylor in March 2006 as he tried to flee from exile there after being forced to quit Liberia three years earlier, under international pressure to end that country’s own civil war.
He was transferred to The Hague in mid-2006 amid fears that putting him on trial in Freetown would pose a security threat.
[A tv grab released by the Special Court for Sierra Leone shows Liberian ex-president Charles Taylor, accused of arming Sierra Leone’s rebels who paid him in “blood diamonds”, listening to his 50-year sentence. AFP Photo]