Human Rights

Justice at last

Blood Diamonds - Flickr/Brian Harrington Spier

Taylor bartered blood diamonds stolen from Sierra Leone mines for weapons

Charles Taylor has been sentenced to 50 years in prison for war crimes. The 64-year-old former president of Liberia’s leadership role in the crimes perpetrated in Sierra Leone put him ‘in a class of his own’ by presiding Justice Richard Lussick of Samoa.

Last month Taylor was convicted of aiding and abetting murder, rape and pillage in Sierra Leone. He was found guilty on all 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Among his horrendous crimes are recruitment and use of child soldiers, mutilation and amputation, sexual slavery, murder, rape and pillage. The Special Court for Sierra Leone found him guilty of providing logistical, operational and moral support to rebel group Revolutionary United Front (RUF) during Sierra Leone’s 11 year civil war. But he was cleared of ordering these crimes.

The former Liberian President was on trial for five years – roughly the same time he spent as premier of the West African republic. This is the first international war crimes trial of an African leader. The conviction is the first for a former head of state by an international court since the Nuremburg trials.

Taylor ascended to the Presidency in 1997 after a barbaric civil war in which at least 200,000 people were killed. Appalling crimes were committed during the multi-sided conflict.

In 1998 Jon Lee Anderson recounted in the New Yorker how drug addled adolescent soldiers would ‘rape, pillage and slaughter at will. Many indulged in cannibalism.’ Taylor commanded ‘one of the most vicious armies of modern times.’ His fighters ‘perpetrated some of the worst atrocities of the war.’

Taylor was ousted from office in 2003 when civil war once again engulfed the country and sought asylum in Nigeria. His tenure was marked by human rights abuses, corruption and supporting brutality in neighbouring Sierra Leone. The Nigerian government eventually arrested Taylor in 2006. He was flown to Free Town, capital of Sierra Leone, and then sent on to the court in the Hague.

That Taylor exploited this barbaric war for financial gain was a seen as a considerable aggravating factor when sentencing. He is likely to serve his sentence in Britain. His lawyers have 14 days to lodge an appeal against verdict and sentence. Prosecutors sought a sentence of 80 years and chief prosecutor Brenda Hollis has said she will consider appealing on the grounds of the sentence being too lenient.

Taylor commanded one of the most vicious armies of modern times


Blood diamonds
Taylor’s trial was not without incident. On the opening day his lawyer dramatically announced his client was boycotting the trial because it was a ‘charade’. The attorney then tried to leave the court but was stopped short by a locked door.

The supermodel Naomi Campbell and actor Mia Farrow were called as witnesses. They testified on the prosecution’s central allegation – blood diamonds. The prosecution alleged and the trial judge agreed that Taylor and the RUF had traded weapons for diamonds stolen from the mines of Sierra Leone.

At the turn of the millennium Liberia was the least developed country in the world. The average life expectancy was less than 26 years. Income from the country’s resources, like diamonds, were funneling into the pockets of a corrupt few.

In 2001 a UN intervention in neighbouring Sierra Leone was quelling the decade long civil war. But as Global Witness documented the RUF was able to keep fighting and Taylor stay in power because of the Liberian timber trade and shipping registry. Weapons were smuggled and funds raised through these the last two sources of income for Liberia.

The UN had already imposed sanctions on Liberia’s diamond trade. Besides exporting timber Taylor and his allies derived an income from the Liberian shipping register.

The Liberian flag is a ‘flag of convenience’. All ships at sea must fly a national flag. They sail under the protection of that nation’s government and must abide by stringent rules and regulations. But Liberia, among other countries, rent their flag out to shipowners with the barest minimum of rules. In 1997 when Taylor came to power Liberia had more ships flying its colours than any other. In 2001 the shipping register made up at least a third of Liberia’s income.

One giant party for arms dealers
Through this unregulated register of ships Taylor was able to dodge sanctions, stay in power and keep supporting the RUF. The rebels would send diamonds across the border into Liberia and guns and ammunition cross in return.

Trafficking experts have called Liberia ‘one giant party for arms dealers and diamond smugglers with money and connections.’ The consequence was to perpetuate the bloody Sierra Leone civil war. As many as half a million people suffered murderous atrocities between 1991 and 2002.

Despite taking half a decade Taylor has joined the Nazis of Nuremberg as a convicted war criminal. When this momentous judgement was read out, crowds in Sierra Leone ‘sighed with relief’. While it may bring some justice to those who suffered from his actions it will not heal all the scars in Liberia or Sierra Leone. But it might mean brutal dictators can no longer act with impunity. They too may have to answer for their crimes, Taylor now has the rest of his life to consider his.

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Charles Taylor was convicted of aiding and abetting war crimes on April 26 when this article was originally published. It has been amended to include details of the sentence handed down by the UN-backed court in the Hague on May 30.