Court delivers landmark verdict in Taylor case | Africa | DW | 26.04.2012
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Court delivers landmark verdict in Taylor case

It's taken more than five years. But now Liberia's former president Charles Taylor has been found criminally responsible for aiding and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone.

During his trial in The Hague, Charles Taylor looked like a successful businessman. The former Liberian president was impeccably dressed in a suit and tie. But on Thursday, Justice Richard Lussick, presiding judge of the UN special tribunal for Sierra Leone, read out the verdict: Guilty of aiding and abetting war crimes. He is the first African head of state to be held accountable for human rights violations by an international court.

However, although he was found guilty on all 11 counts, Taylor was not found to have had command responsibility over the Revolutionary United Front rebels.

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Taylor found guilty of aiding war crimes

Lawyer Alpha Sesay followed Taylor's trial since it began in June 2007. He has worked in Sierra Leone for the Human Rights organization "Open Society Justice Initiative." The trial was "extremely important" for the people of Sierra Leone, said Sesay.

The former Liberian president was found to have supported rebel forces in Sierra Leone. He also tried to control the country's diamond fields. More than 50,000 people died in fighting between rebel forces and the army.

Hard evidence

The challenge for the prosecution was to provide evidence indicting Taylor for these crimes. "There were difficulties finding appropriate evidence because there wasn't a paper trail," said Harmen van der Wilt, professor of international criminal law at the University of Amsterdam. This made the process exceptionally long – but outstretched trials in the world of international criminal law are nothing out of the ordinary. The trial of Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga lasted six years, although evidence at his trial was much stronger. "These lawsuits are complicated," said Harmen van der Wilt in an interview with DW.

Mohammed Wan cleaning the grave sites of Sierra Leonean army soldiers killed in the 10 -year civil war which ended early 2002 at a veterans cemetery in Freetown, Sierra Leone

Half a million people died during Sierra Leone's civil war.

No one denies there were serious human rights violations that occurred during the Sierra Leone civil war. "The defense even admitted the offences," said Sesay. The problem for the prosecution was proving whether Charles Taylor personally ordered the crimes to be committed. The 64-year-old was tried on 11 charges: he was accused of orchestrating crimes ranging from rape to murder. "He never went to Sierra Leone during the entire period of the conflict," said Sesay. Rather, he said, rebel forces travelled to Liberia to carry out Taylor's demands.

A supermodel in the witness box

The prosecution called witnesses with particularly close connections to Taylor. They wanted to reveal the chain of command and show Taylor was responsible for the human rights violations. "Even Liberia's former vice-president testified," said Sesay. The fact the trial took place in Europe and not in Sierra Leone, has helped to get witnesses to testify, the lawyer believes.

Two young amputees in Sierra Leone, whose hands and arms were hacked off by rebels

The UN special tribunal had to decide whether Taylor orchestrated the crimes for which he was on trial.

Notably, the most famous witness in the trial had nothing to do with politics: in August 2010, supermodel Naomi Campbell was asked to give evidence against Taylor. To the prosecution's disappointment, she said she could not confirm with absolute certainty that she had received blood diamonds from Charles Taylor. Many believe the diamonds were the main motivation for Taylor's involvement in the Sierra Leone civil war.

No subpoena for Gadhafi

There was strong criticism that the trial was moved from Sierra Leone's capital city, Freetown, to The Hague. For security reasons the trial couldn't be held where the atrocities occurred. There was also criticism of how Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi's role in the chain of events was ignored. In 2003, the UN Security Council threw light on his role in the Sierra Leone conflict. He is said to have provided rebel forces with money, weapons and ammunition.

Sesay believes, nevertheless, that this trial will set a precedent. "Very powerful people, whatever their positions are, could be held to account if they are accused of having been involved in the commission of crimes."

Author: André Leslie / jw / sgb
Editor: Daniel Pelz

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