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The conviction of Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, for aiding and abetting crimes committed in the neighbouring country of Sierra Leone, might seem novel, considering that he "never set foot" there, as Richard Lussick, the Presiding Judge put it. But the decision of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, appointed by the United Nations, is soundly based in pre-existing legal principles.

The events were extreme: Mr. Taylor subsidized, armed and supplied a rebel Liberian army, the Revolutionary United Front, so that he could freely plunder Sierra Leone for its diamonds. The RUF waged a war of terror, including rape and mutilation, coining the verbs "short-sleeve" and "long-sleeve" for severance at the elbow and wrist, respectively – and laid wagers on the gender of foetuses in utero, then slitting open the mothers' abdomens to find out.

Judge Lussick, an Australian-born Samoan, rightly called these actions "some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history."

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"Aiding and abetting," "accessory before the fact" and "forming a common intention" are ordinary, familiar concepts in Canadian criminal law, dealt with almost at the beginning of this country's Criminal Code. Usually, these terms have to do with the lesser parties to an offence, who are likely to receive milder sentences.

Mr. Taylor, however, received at the age of 64 a 50-year prison sentence, longer than any likely human lifespan. Abetting mass murder, rape and amputation is a truly extraordinary crime deserving an extraordinary punishment. The court took the position that Mr. Taylor's status as a head of state at the time of the offences was an aggravating factor; a public trust had been betrayed.

Indeed, the prosecutor had asked for 80 years, but the three-judge court did not think it had been proved that Mr. Taylor had initially formed a common intention with the Sierra Leonean rebels. This decision was balanced and nuanced.

Such a situation is not unique to countries with weak or poor governance. Any head of state or government should take pause before authorizing aid to armed factions in civil wars which may turn out to be viciously barbarous. Presidents and prime ministers should long remember Charles Taylor.

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