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Conviction deals blow to traditional impunity of dictators

Liberian presidential candidate and warlord Charles Taylor arrives at a polling station during presidential voting in Monrovia, Liberia, in 1997.

David Guttenfelder/Associated Press/David Guttenfelder/Associated Press

Former Liberian president Charles Taylor, the charismatic mastermind of a savage decade of war that killed more than 250,000 people in West Africa, has become the first head of state to be convicted by an international court since the Nuremberg trials.

At a special international court in The Hague, 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, fuelled by money from blood diamonds.

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, although his supporters have vowed to file an appeal.

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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.

What it means for international justice

The guilty verdict is a historic blow against the traditional impunity of presidents and dictators. But by ignoring Mr. Taylor's many victims inside Liberia itself, it sent a message that political leaders are more vulnerable to prosecution for foreign crimes than domestic ones.

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."

Gilles Yabi of the International Crisis Group said the verdict was "a watershed moment in the fight to hold high-level perpetrators accountable."

Yet aside from Mr. Taylor, only eight other defendants were convicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which will wind up its work by the end of this year.

The court prosecuted only those who were deemed to have the "greatest responsibility" for the atrocities in Sierra Leone. And nobody has been convicted for thousands of war crimes in Liberia. Many of its warlords are still free, with some still holding positions of power in Liberia today.

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"The question of why Taylor was not tried for the crimes he committed here remains unanswered and may come back to haunt us," said an editorial in a Liberian newspaper, the Daily Observer. "This is a case of moving the body next door and hoping not to smell it."

What it means for Liberia

Many Liberians were enraged by the verdict in The Hague, seeing it as a global conspiracy against them. The verdict may have even increased the sympathy for Mr. Taylor in his homeland. Yet significantly, there was no violence in the reaction here, suggesting that Liberians are weary of war and determined to protect the fragile peace that has prevailed since 2003.

Crowds of Liberians gathered in the streets of Monrovia to watch television broadcasts of the verdict on Thursday. 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."

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Bitter arguments erupted as crowds argued over Mr. Taylor's guilt or innocence. Some were pleased to see him convicted. "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 in the street 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."

What it means for victims

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 viewing sites that were set up to allow people to watch the court ruling from The Hague.

Even a decade after the war, amputees are still a common sight in Sierra Leone's cities, where they are often begging for money from foreigners. The Taylor verdict is a symbolic victory for the victims – especially those who were brutalized as children.

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 labourers.

"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.

What it means for Africa

The conviction of Mr. Taylor reinforces a disturbing trend: the vast majority of international-court prosecutions have targeted African warlords and political leaders.

The trend has made it easy for African leaders to complain of bias against them. The legitimacy of the international courts will continue to be cast in doubt if they never prosecute any Western leaders or key Western allies in Asia or the Middle East.

The growing number of African defendants in the international courts, especially high-ranking politicians and heads of state, will at least put pressure on African autocrats to consider the personal risks of their human-rights abuses. But it could also encourage some to cling stubbornly to power, fearing jail if they step down.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo and Kenyan deputy prime minister Uhuru Kenyatta are among the prominent African leaders to be indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in recent years.

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