LEIDSCHENDAM, Netherlands, Apr 26 – Liberian ex-leader Charles Taylor was convicted Thursday of arming rebels during Sierra Leone’s civil war in return for blood diamonds, in an historic verdict for international justice.
In the first judgement against a former head of state by a world court since the World War II Nuremberg trials, Taylor was found guilty of 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
“The trial chamber finds you guilty of aiding and abetting of all these crimes,” said presiding judge Richard Lussick.
“The chamber finds beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is criminally responsible… for aiding and abetting in the commission of crimes one to 11 in the indictment,” Lussick said at the court, based just outside The Hague.
Dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and red tie, the former president stood motionless as the verdict was read and showed no emotion afterwards.
He will be sentenced by the same court on May 30.
If sentenced to jail, Taylor will be held in a British prison.
Earlier the Samoan judge Lussick said: “The trial chamber found that the accused was instrumental in procuring and transporting arms to (Sierra Leone’s) RUF rebels, that he was paid in diamonds and kept some for himself.”
Taylor, 64, was convicted on all counts against him including acts of terrorism, murder and rape, committed by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels, who waged a terror campaign during a civil war that claimed 120,000 lives between 1991 and 2001.
The trial, which saw model Naomi Campbell testify she had received diamonds from the flamboyant Taylor, wrapped up in March 2011.
Prosecutors alleged that the RUF paid Taylor with illegally mined so-called blood diamonds worth millions, stuffed into mayonnaise jars.
These diamonds would then be smuggled through a guest house in the Liberian capital Monrovia in return for diamonds and ammunition provided by Charles Taylor.
Lussick said the stones were gathered by the RUF in Sierra Leone, who used slave labour and enlisted child soldiers.
“Children under the age of 15 were abducted and conscripted. They had the letters ‘RUF’ carved into their foreheads and backs to prevent escape,” the judge said.
During the trial, prosecutor Brenda Hollis told the court that Taylor had “created, armed, supported and controlled the RUF in a 10-year campaign of terror against the civil population of Sierra Leone.”
Taylor, Liberia’s president from 1997 to 2003, dismissed the allegations as “lies” and claiming to be the victim of a plot by “powerful countries.”
During the trial which began on June 4, 2007, 94 witnesses took the stand for the prosecution and 21 for the defence. Taylor testified for 81 hours.
Campbell and actress Mia Farrow gave headline-grabbing evidence in August 2010 about a gift of “dirty” diamonds Taylor gave to Campbell at a charity dinner hosted by then South African president Nelson Mandela in 1997.
Judges also heard gruesome testimony from victims of the Sierra Leone conflict, including a witness who said he pleaded with RUF rebels to cut off his remaining hand so they would spare his toddler son.
Others said Taylor’s fighters strung human intestines across roads, removed foetuses from wombs and practised cannibalism, while children younger than 15 were enlisted to fight.
One witness said he was present when the Liberian leader ate human liver.
During his own testimony, which began in July 2009, Taylor called the trial a “sham” and denied allegations he ever ate human flesh.
In its reaction, Amnesty International said the verdict sent a message to high-ranking officials responsible for crimes that they would eventually face justice.
“There is no doubt that today’s verdict sends an important message to high-ranking state officials; no matter who you are or what position you hold, you will be brought to justice for crimes,” said Brima Abdulai Sheriff, Amensty’s Sierra Leone head.
The proceedings were relayed live on TV screens to Sierra Leone where victims of the war looked on intently.
“We as victims expect that Taylor will be given 100 years or more in prison,” said Al Hadji Jusu Jarka, a former chairman of the Amputees Association, his prosthetic arms folded in his lap.
Jusu Jarka lost both his arms when rebels held him down on the root of a mango tree and cut off first the left, and then the right, just above the elbow.
Nigerian authorities arrested Taylor in March 2006 when he tried to flee from exile in Nigeria after stepping down as Liberian president three years earlier in a negotiated end to a civil war in his own country.
He was transferred to the SCSL in Freetown, but in June 2006 a UN Security Council resolution cleared the way for him to be transferred to The Hague, saying his presence in west Africa was an “impediment to stability and a threat to the peace.”
The court, set up jointly by the Sierra Leone government and the United Nations, has already convicted eight Sierra Leoneans of war crimes and jailed them for between 15 and 52 years after trials in Freetown.