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Sierra Leone: Landmark Conviction of Liberian Ex-President

World Less Hospitable for Leaders Who Commit Grave Crimes

(The Hague) – The conviction on April 26, 2012, of Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, for serious international crimes during Sierra Leone’s brutal armed conflict provides justice for victims and shows that no one is above the law, Human Rights Watch said today. Taylor was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity before the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone on charges that stemmed from his support for rebel groups there.

“Powerful leaders like Charles Taylor have for too long lived comfortably above the law,” said Elise Keppler, senior international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch. “Taylor’s conviction sends a message to those in power that they can be held to account for grave crimes.”

Taylor is the only former head of state since Nuremberg to be convicted for war crimes or crimes against humanity by an international or hybrid international-national tribunal. Slobodan Milosevic, president of the former Yugoslavia, was tried by an international tribunal, but he died before a judgment was issued. Karl Doenitz, who was a German naval commander and president of Germany for approximately one week at the end of World War II, was convicted by the International Military Tribunal of Nuremberg.

The judgment in Taylor’s case comes five months after Laurent Gbagbo, the former Côte d’Ivoire president, appeared before the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of crimes against humanity during Côte d’Ivoire’s 2011 political and military crisis. President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan is also subject to an ICC arrest warrant, but he remains a fugitive from justice.The Special Court found Taylor guilty of the war crimes of terrorizing civilians, murder, outrages on personal dignity, cruel treatment, looting, and recruiting and using child soldiers; and the crimes against humanity of murder, rape, sexual slavery, mutilating and beating, and enslavement.

“Not since Nuremberg has an international or hybrid war crimes court issued a judgment against a current or former head of state,” Keppler said. “This is a victory for Sierra Leonean victims of Taylor’s brutal crimes, and all those seeking justice when the worst abuses are committed.”

Taylor was convicted of aiding and abetting, as well as planning war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), Sierra Leonean rebel groups whose fighters were responsible for numerous atrocities during Sierra Leone’s 11-year armed conflict, which ended in 2002. The Special Court for Sierra Leone previously convicted a total of six members of both armed groups for their involvement in these crimes.The defense team has 14 days from the receipt of the full judgment to notify the court of its intention to appeal. The sentence against Taylor will be pronounced on May 30.He will serve any prison term in the United Kingdom based on an agreement with the Netherlands.

The judgment has significance for people across West Africa, Human Rights Watch said. Taylor is implicated in human rights abuses and fomenting instability in countries throughout the sub-region. Forces under Taylor’s command were implicated in horrific abuses against civilians in his native Liberia, including summary executions and numerous massacres, widespread and systematic rape, mutilation and torture, and large-scale forced conscription and use of child combatants.

The Special Court’s work is limited to crimes committed in Sierra Leone. The Liberian government has not initiated any prosecutions for serious crimes committed during its armed conflict, which ended in 2003.

“The Liberian government’s lack of progress in bringing prosecutions against those implicated in war crimes during its own armed conflict is hugely disappointing,” Keppler said. “Liberian victims of massacres, rape, and torture are every bit as deserving of justice as victims in Sierra Leone.”

Lessons should be drawn from the Taylor trial to promote the best possible practice in future trials of such high-level leaders, Human Rights Watch said. The Taylor case largely avoided the major disruptions and delays that have marred some other major international proceedings.

The Taylor judgment is a milestone for the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Human Rights Watch said. Upon the conclusion of this case, the Special Court is set to become the first international or hybrid tribunal to complete its trials and wind down its operations. The International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda are nearing completion, but continue to conduct cases.

From 1989 to 1997, Taylor led a rebel group, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), which sought to unseat Liberia’s president at the time, Samuel Doe, and to take control of the country. Taylor was sworn in as president on August 2, 1997, after elections that were part of a peace agreement brokered by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Taylor’s presidency, which lasted until 2003, was characterized by repression of dissent and harassment of the media, civil society, and the political opposition. In addition to abuses in Liberia, his forces participated in armed conflicts and cross-border raids in neighboring countries, including Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire, where they committed numerous abuses. There was near-total impunity for those responsible for these abuses.

Taylor’s repression in Liberia fueled a rebellion to unseat him. Following rebel incursions into Monrovia, the Liberian capital, and the unsealing of Taylor’s indictment by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Taylor stepped down as president in August 2003. He was offered safe haven in Nigeria, where he stayed until his surrender to the Special Court in March 2006.
The Special Court on March 7, 2003, indicted Taylor for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed during Sierra Leone’s armed conflict. The indictment was amended in March 2006 and the counts reduced from 17 to 11, shortly before Taylor was apprehended.

Taylor was transferred to the custody of the Special Court on March 29, 2006. Because of concerns over regional stability in West Africa, the trial was moved from Freetown to the Netherlands. The trial began on June 4, 2007, but was adjourned the same day when Taylor dismissed his legal team. New counsel was assigned the following month and proceedings restarted in January 2008. The trial phase was officially closed on March 11, 2011.

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