Yet an international court in The Hague on Wednesday sentenced Taylor to 50 years in prison for aiding and abetting the rebels who committed the atrocities, a sentence just as harsh as those meted out to the top rebel commanders who directed the killing.
His guilty verdict last month made the former Liberian president the first head of state to have been convicted of crimes against humanity by an international criminal court since the second world war.
But in ruling that his status as head of state was an aggravating factor, the Special Court for Sierra Leone may have set another precedent that will have implications for any future heads of states who come before a tribunal.
As president of Liberia, Taylor should have been “using his power to promote peace and stability”, said Richard Lussick, the court’s presiding judge, rather than supplying the rebels with arms and helping to plan their offensives in exchange for diamonds.
“The precedent that being a head of state is an aggravating factor that justifies a higher sentence is very significant,” said Géraldine Mattioli-Zeltner of Human Rights Watch. “I hope in the future that other heads of states involved in serious crimes, and I have in mind Syrian president Bashar al-Assad — I hope he’s watching the news and hearing this.”
Taylor was convicted in April on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, enslavement and recruiting child soldiers. Prosecutors showed that he had conspired with leaders of the Sierra Leonean rebel groups, the Revolutionary United Front and Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, and had supplied them with arms and communications equipment.
Taylor was fully aware of the cruelty of the rebels’ methods, including mass amputation of limbs, the court found. Yet he helped rebel commanders plan offensives with names such as “Operation No Living Thing”, urging them to capture diamond production centres. In some cases Taylor was secretly conspiring with rebel commanders while publicly mediating peace negotiations with the government.
The court noted that duplicity in rejecting arguments by Taylor’s defence counsel, British barrister Courtenay Griffiths, that his efforts in the peace process entitled him to a lighter sentence.
But in its original guilty verdict the court also accepted a less severe theory of liability than prosecutors demanded. Rather than accepting the prosecution’s theories that Taylor and rebel leaders had engaged in a joint criminal enterprise, and that Taylor had exercised command responsibility over the rebels, the court found only that Taylor had “aided and abetted” the rebels.
That left prosecutors worried that Taylor’s sentence might be shorter than those given to rebel commanders, despite their view that he had been the most important player.
Brenda Hollis, the former US military lawyer who served as chief prosecutor, requested a sentence of 80 years but praised the court after their decision. The 50-year sentence is as long as any the court has awarded, apart from the 52 years it gave RUF commander Issa Sesay in 2009.
“It is important that those responsible for criminal violations on a massive scale not be given a volume discount,” she told reporters after the sentencing.
Griffiths said Taylor would appeal against both the verdict and the sentence. He said jails in the UK, where Taylor will probably serve his sentence, might not be able to guarantee his safety.
Ibrahim Sorie, a member of Sierra Leone’s parliament who travelled to the Netherlands for the hearing, said his countrymen were “very satisfied” with the sentence. — BBC Online.