Liberia’s former president, Charles Taylor, has been sentenced to 50 years in jail for being “in a class of his own” when committing war crimes during the long-running civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone.
Judges at a UN-backed tribunal in The Hague said his leadership role and exploitation of the conflict to extract so-called “blood diamonds” meant he deserved one of the longest prison sentences handed down so far by the court.
Taylor, 64, was found guilty last month of 11 counts of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity, when supporting rebels between 1996 and 2002 in return for conflict gems.
The offences included murder, rape, sexual slavery, recruiting child soldiers, enforced amputations and pillage.
Delivering the decision at the special court for Sierra Leone, Judge Richard Lussick said Taylor’s crimes were of the “utmost gravity in terms of scale and brutality”.
He added: “The lives of many more innocent civilians in Sierra Leone were lost or destroyed as a direct result of his actions.”
Taylor was “in a class of his own” compared with others convicted by the court. “The special status of Mr Taylor as a head of state puts him in a different category of offenders for the purpose of sentencing.”
Prosecutors had asked the judges to impose an 80-year prison term. Lussick said such a long term would have been excessive as Taylor was convicted of aiding and abetting which “as a mode of liability generally warrants a lesser sentence than that imposed for more direct forms of participation”.
Issa Sesay, a leader of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) which carried out many of the atrocities, has been sentenced to 52 years in jail.
Taylor, in a suit and yellow tie, gave no response as Lussick handed down what will effectively be a life sentence. His lawyers have 14 days to lodge an appeal against verdict and sentence.
Adama Dempster of the Liberian Human Rights Protection Forum was in the courtroom. “I was watching Mr Taylor,” he said. “He was quiet. He was moving his head from one position to another. He had a little bit of red in his eyes.
“Fifty years is a lot but it’s about bringing redress for the victims. It’s also about reinforcing the principle that no man is above the law. It serves as a precedent to dictators and those who encourage war. From our standpoint we saw justice being done. There was no sense of jubilation in court.”
Aid agencies and organisations in Sierra Leone welcomed the sentence. Korto Williams, director of ActionAid Liberia, said: “Not only is this verdict an opportunity for Sierra Leone and Liberia to move forward, it also signals the international community’s clear intent that any leader who misuses their power and carries out state-sanctioned violence will be held responsible for their crimes and will be punished.”
Adama Coulibaly of the children’s rights organisation Plan International, which works in Sierra Leone to help former child soldiers and civil war survivors, said: “Many young people in Sierra Leone witnessed their parents being killed. Some were pulled into the fighting forces as soldiers or bush wives. Those who experienced this war as children continue to be haunted by its atrocities.
“Taylor’s trials in The Hague seem very far away from the reality of people’s actual lives. For a region where peace and political stability are extremely fragile, this trial is of important symbolic value, rather than bringing actual redemption to those who suffered during the war.”
Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner of Human Rights Watch said: “It is really significant that Taylor’s status as a former head of state was taken as an aggravating factor as far as his sentence was concerned.
“That is a very important precedent and I hope that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir take note.”
Taylor is the first former head of state convicted by an international war crimes court since Admiral Karl Dönitz, Hitler’s successor, was jailed at Nuremberg.
The civil war left more than 50,000 dead in the west African state. Thousands had their arms or hands forcibly amputated. During the conflict, the country’s average life expectancy dipped to 37 years.
Taylor’s sentence is likely to be served in the UK, which has offered to take him once his trial and appeal are completed. Taylor’s defence told the court that exiling him to Britain – where a Serbian war crimes convict was attacked in his cell two years ago – would leave him “culturally isolated” and constitute a “punishment within a punishment”.
In his last address to the tribunal, Taylor denied encouraging human rights abuses during the prolonged civil war in Sierra Leone, insisting he had in fact been trying to stabilise the region.
“What I did to bring peace to Sierra Leone was done with honour. I was convinced that unless there was peace in Sierra Leone, Liberia would not be able to move forward.
“I pushed the peace process hard, contrary to how I have been portrayed in this court.”
The court’s prosecutor, Brenda Hollis, said that she may appeal the sentence on the grounds that it is too lenient.
“We will carefully review the sentencing judgment keeping in mind the critical role Mr Taylor played in the commission of the crimes of which he has been convicted, the horrible suffering of the victims, and the devastating impact of the crimes,” she said.
“It is important that those responsible for criminal misconduct on a massive scale are not given a volume discount.
“The sentence imposed today does not replace amputated limbs, does not bring back to life those who were murdered, does not heal the wounds of those who were victims of sexual violence and does not remove the permanent emotional, psychological and physical scars of those enslaved or recruited as child soldiers.”