Charles Taylor, former Liberian president, found guilty of war crimes

Charles Taylor: A guilty verdict against the former Liberian president – including charges of murder, rape, use of child soldiers – sets precedent for holding sitting heads of state to account.

Peter Dejong/AP
Former Liberian President Charles Taylor looks down as he waits for the start of a hearing to deliver verdict in the court room of the Special Court for Sierra Leone in Leidschendam, near The Hague, Netherlands, Thursday April 26.

Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, has been found guilty of all 11 of the charges against him, including acts of terrorism, murder, rape, sexual slavery, the use of child soldiers, and other inhuman acts.

Mr. Taylor is the first sitting head of state to be indicted for war crimes since the Nuremberg Nazi war trials, and today, he became the first leader to be convicted of war crimes committed when he was head of state.

While the court that convicted Taylor was a special tribunal created for the 11-year conflict in Sierra Leone, which ended in 2002, this trial sets a precedent for holding other world leaders to account for their actions in office. At present, the International Criminal Court at the Hague has indicted at least two other former or current heads of state, including Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir and former Cote D’Ivoire President Laurent Gbagbo, for war crimes or crimes against humanity.

“This is a huge step forward in holding leaders accountable,” says Andie Lambe, head of the international justice team for the human rights advocacy group, Global Witness. “This sends a very clear signal to world leaders that you will be held accountable for your actions.”

Taylor led a rebel group from 1989 to 1997 that succeeded in overthrowing then-President Samuel Doe. Taylor later was elected president in 1997, after a peace process brokered by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In office, Taylor is accused of repressing critics and journalists, and launching cross-border raids into neighboring states such as Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Cote D’Ivoire.

It was for crimes committed by soldiers under his command in Sierra Leone that Taylor was ultimately indicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, prompting Taylor to step down from office in August 2003, and to seek exile in Nigeria. Nigeria ultimately handed Taylor over for extradition in 2006.

While Taylor has been found guilty by the Special Court this week, he has been found guilty for the lesser charges of “aiding and abetting,” rather than for being in a command responsibility in directing those criminal activities in Sierra Leone. Even so, the sheer number of counts against him, and the severity of the crimes, are likely to mean a stiff and lengthy sentence, Ms. Lambe of Global Witness says.

Human Rights Watch welcomed the guilty verdict, while criticizing the Liberian government – led by Nobel Prize laureate President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf – for failing to launch its own investigation of war crimes committed in Liberia by the Taylor regime.

“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, in an emailed statement. “Taylor’s conviction sends a message to those in power that they can be held to account for grave crimes.”

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