As the world applauded the guilty verdict against former Liberian president Charles Taylor today, the angry backlash in his homeland was a reminder of the risks of prosecuting a politician who remains popular at home.
At a special international court in The Hague today, Mr. Taylor was found guilty of aiding and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone, including murder, rape, mutilation, sexual slavery, the conscription of child soldiers and countless other atrocities, fueled by money from blood diamonds.
Yet because the court was held abroad, many Liberians saw it as a global conspiracy against them. The verdict may have even increased the sympathy for Mr. Taylor in his homeland.
Crowds of Liberians gathered in the streets of Monrovia to watch television broadcasts of the verdict, and most were convinced it was a plot by the United States and Britain.
“It was a mockery of justice,” said Alfred Kromah, an unemployed printer. With tears rolling down his face, he denounced the international court as an unfair body. “Charles Taylor never did anything in Sierra Leone,” he said.
Simeon Hayes, a 24-year-old student, wore a T-shirt demanding freedom for Mr. Taylor. “The Americans and British are supporting this decision,” he said after the verdict. “No Americans are ever tried in the international courts.”
Mr. Taylor, ousted from Liberia in 2003 after a 14-year reign as a warlord and president, is the first former head of state to be convicted by an international court since the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War.
Ordered to rise to his feet for the verdict, his face was impassive as he was pronounced guilty. He will be sentenced next month and will serve his sentence in a British prison. His supporters vowed to file an appeal.
Mr. Taylor’s trial took five years, with testimony from dozens of witnesses – including British supermodel Naomi Campbell, who admitted receiving a pouch of diamonds from a Taylor representative at a charity event hosted by Nelson Mandela in 1997.
Mr. Taylor was found guilty of providing weapons, ammunition, communications equipment and other support for the rebels who committed atrocities in Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war from 1991 to 2002. Although he was not found guilty of directly commanding the rebels, his support for their crimes was “sustained and significant,” presiding judge Richard Lussick said in the ruling.
In Sierra Leone, where many people had their hands or limbs chopped off by Liberian-backed rebels during the war, there were scenes of joy and celebration at the special viewing sites that were set up to allow people to watch the court ruling from The Hague.
The verdict was praised by human rights groups and aid agencies around the world. “Powerful leaders like Charles Taylor have for too long lived comfortably above the law,” said Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch.
“Taylor’s conviction sends a powerful message that even those in the highest level positions can be held to account for grave crimes,” she said. “This is a victory for Sierra Leonean victims, and all those seeking justice when the worst abuses are committed.”
Anthony Lake, executive director of the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, said the children of Sierra Leone were forced to serve as soldiers, human shields, sex slaves and diamond laborers.
“For the thousands of children brutalized, scarred and exploited as weapons of war, today’s verdict against Charles Taylor may not wipe out the atrocities they suffered, but we hope it will help to heal their wounds,” he said.
On the streets of Monrovia today, bitter arguments erupted as crowds argued over the verdict. Some people were pleased to see Mr. Taylor found guilty. “My people were massacred,” said Sekou Dukuly, a 38-year-old shopkeeper from a Liberian tribe that was persecuted by Mr. Taylor. “He should be in prison forever.”
Yet most people among the crowds were Taylor supporters. After the verdict, they looked up to the sky and saw a rainbow halo around the sun – a rare atmospheric phenomenon. “God is angry,” they said. “It means there was no justice.”