Liberian warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor, who was convicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone in April, was sentenced to 50 years in prison for his role in aiding and abetting rebels during Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war. Taylor’s trial, which began in 2006 and featured testimony from 115 witnesses, is the last on the special court’s docket. Eight other perpetrators have already been sentenced.
Not since the 1946 Nuremberg trial conviction of Karl Doenitz, who briefly led Nazi Germany after Hitler’s death, has a head of state been convicted and sentenced by an international court. The court noted that Taylor’s role as head of state gave him a special status compared to other perpetrators already convicted by the court. His leadership role put him in a "different category of offenders for the purpose of sentencing." Judge Richard Lussick noted, “Leadership must be carried out by example by the prosecution of crimes, not the commission of crimes.”
The prosecution asked for a sentence of 80 years but Taylor’s lawyers requested that the judges hand down a sentence that offered some hope of release before his death. However, if carried out fully, his sentence will likely mean Taylor will die in prison.
Taylor will serve his prison term in the United Kingdom but will continue to be held in The Hague while the court considers his appeal. His defense team is preparing an appeal, and the prosecution is said to be considering an appeal to increase the sentence and broaden Taylor’s responsibility for crimes committed while he was president.
Taylor’s conviction and sentencing has brought renewed attention to the victims of the war, particularly the children forced into fighting. After the sentencing, victims’ advocates asked for more assistance for former child soldiers and orphans, saying, "You can see hundreds of them begging on the streets of Freetown. Many who suffered horrendously need help to return to the provinces, they think they cannot survive there."
This sentiment was echoed inside the courtroom as Judge Lussick connected the plight of Sierra Leone’s victims to Taylor himself. While handing down the sentence he said, "While Mr. Taylor never set foot in Sierra Leone, his heavy footprint is there…[t]he lives of many more innocent civilians in Sierra Leone were lost or destroyed as a direct result of his actions."
The conviction and sentencing of a former head of state is an important milestone for international justice and particularly the International Criminal Court, or ICC, which will soon begin the trial of the former president of the Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, and has issued an arrest warrant for the current Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. The conclusion of Taylor’s trial should be a warning to all heads of state who continue to abuse their citizens and violate human rights. As the global community continues to uphold norms of accountability, the titles and privileges of office will not protect leaders from international justice.
Photo: Charles Taylor at The Hague when the verdict was delivered (AP)