The crimes, the judge said, were some of the most evil in human history. The result was an unexpectedly harsh sentence: 50 years in prison for Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president who orchestrated a decade of diamond-fuelled atrocities in West Africa.
It was one of the heaviest prison sentences ever imposed for war crimes. Many analysts had been expecting a lighter sentence, but presiding judge Richard Lussick said the 50-year term was a reflection of Mr. Taylor’s horrific crimes in a position of high authority.
The former warlord and president is the first ex-head of state to be convicted by an international war crimes tribunal since the Second World War. He was convicted of providing weapons and supplies to help rebels to murder, rape and mutilate tens of thousands of people in Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002, using the proceeds of illicit “blood diamonds” to fuel his crimes.
Judge Lussick made it clear that the court was entering uncharted territory, setting a legal precedent by harshly sentencing a political leader who had never directly perpetrated the crimes for which he was convicted.
The 50-year sentence will be a dramatic warning to other world leaders: they can be sentenced to decades in prison even if their hands never touch a victim.
“He was found responsible for aiding and abetting some of the most heinous and brutal crimes in recorded history,” Judge Lussick said in his reading of the sentencing today in The Hague at the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
“While Mr. Taylor never set foot in Sierra Leone, his heavy footprint is there…. The lives of many innocent civilians in Sierra Leone were lost or destroyed as a direct result of his actions.”
Normally an accessory to a crime would receive a lighter sentence than the direct perpetrators – but that principle doesn’t apply in such an unprecedented case, Judge Lussick said.
“As we enter a new era of accountability, there are no true comparators to which the trial chamber can look for precedent in determining an appropriate sentence in this case. However, the trial chamber wishes to underscore the gravity it attaches to Mr. Taylor’s betrayal of public trust.”
The court quoted Mr. Taylor’s own boasts to justify its heavy sentence against him. “I was president of Liberia -- I was not some petty trader on the streets of Monrovia,” he had told the court.
Prosecutors had asked for an 80-year prison sentence for Mr. Taylor for arming and supplying rebels who committed gruesome crimes. “The purposely cruel and savage crimes committed included public executions and amputations of civilians, the display of decapitated heads at checkpoints, the killing and public disembowelment of a civilian whose intestines were then stretched across the road to make a checkpoint, public rapes of women and girls, and people burned alive in their homes,” the prosecution said.
The defence had sought leniency for Mr. Taylor because of his age and his expressions of sympathy to the victims. It argued that the former president should not be the scapegoat for a decade of war.
Mr. Taylor, ordered to rise to his feet for the sentencing today, showed not a flicker of reaction to the 50-year term. He has never admitted any wrongdoing or expressed any remorse for the atrocities.
His supporters have already said that he will appeal the guilty verdict. He will serve the jail term in a British prison.
Including the six years he has already spent in custody, the 64-year-old former president will be imprisoned until the age of 108, which is almost certainly a life sentence, although the tribunal is not permitted to impose life terms.
The 50-year sentence will be controversial in Liberia, where Mr. Taylor still enjoys strong support from many sections of society. But it was welcomed in Sierra Leone. “Some kind of justice has been done,” a Sierra Leone government spokesman said today.
Global Witness, an advocacy group that has campaigned against blood diamonds, welcomed the 50-year prison sentence but called for similar justice for Mr. Taylor’s victims in Liberia.
“Today’s sentence not only reflects the severity of Taylor’s crimes but sends a clear message that individuals who aid and abet war crimes can no longer act with impunity,” said Patrick Alley, founder director of Global Witness.
“Unlike in Sierra Leone, no court has been established to hold accountable those who perpetuated Liberia’s bloody conflict,” Mr. Alley said in a statement. “A quarter of a million people died in Liberia’s equally brutal civil wars, and yet many of those who committed these crimes, including companies and individuals that helped Taylor exploit the region’s resources to fund war, continue to live freely.”