Judges on Wednesday will sentence former Liberian president Charles Taylor for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in neighboring Sierra Leone, making him the first head of state to be sentenced by an international court since Nuremberg.
By Lauren Comiteau, Amsterdam
When chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone Brenda Hollis called for an 80-year sentence for the former warlord-turned-president earlier this month, she argued that no leniency should be shown to the leader who “acted as a two-headed Janus, publicly espousing peace while clandestinely undermining it.”
Taylor was convicted last month for 11 counts of aiding and abetting murder, rape, sexual enslavement and terror during neighboring Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war in exchange for blood diamonds.
But judges presiding over his four-year trial found that although Taylor provided crucial support for the crimes, there wasn’t enough evidence to find him guilty of commanding or controlling his proxy rebel fighters.
Man of peace
Taylor always said he was a peacemaker. But prosecutors portrayed him as a power-hungry, charismatic manipulator who used (and funded) his proxy rebel fighters (Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front—RUF—and their allies) to terrorize the population of neighboring Sierra Leone to exploit its diamond wealth.
They hold him responsible for killings, public amputations, mass rapes, and using children as soldiers. Some 120,000 people were killed and thousands more mutilated during the country’s 1991-2001 civil war.
At Taylor’s sentencing arguments earlier this month, Hollis said his involvement in the crimes was "more pervasive than that of the most senior leaders" of the rebels who have already been sentenced. The longest sentence so far, 52 years, was given to rebel leader Issa Sesay, who testified on Taylor's behalf in 2010.
“A sentence slightly above that would be fair in my opinion,” says Sierra Leone journalism student Sarah Bomkapre Kamara. “These guys committed atrocities and Taylor has been convicted of helping them…. Without him, they wouldn’t have succeeded. So I think he should have a sentence higher than them.”
It’s America’s fault
But Taylor’s lawyers have argued that 80-years is “excessive”, and they’ve called for a “fair and just” sentence that would reflect their client’s supporting role. “To sentence a 64-year-old man to 80 years is a guarantee that he will die in prison,” defense lawyer Courtenay Griffiths argued in court during Taylor’s May sentencing hearing.
Taylor himself also took the stand to argue for leniency. Wearing a diamond wedding band, he told judges that witnesses had been threatened and paid to testify against him and that Western powers were using the court to pursue colonial aims against smaller countries.
“Regime change in Liberia became a policy of the U.S. government,” he said in court. “I never stood a chance.”
And while Taylor said he sympathized with the war’s victims, he stopped short of admitting any wrongdoing or apologizing, asking judges instead to sentence him in a spirit of "reconciliation, not retribution."
Both prosecutors and defense lawyers are likely to appeal Taylor’s verdict. They have two weeks after Wednesday’s sentencing to do that.
For Taylor, it’s back to the detention center in Scheveningen outside The Hague, where he’s been living since 2006 and will remain pending any appeals judgments. Any final prison term is expected to be served in Britain.