By MARLISE SIMONS and J. DAVID GOODMAN
The ex-Liberian leader was the last defendant to be judged by a special court for atrocities committed in Sierra Leone.
LEIDSCHENDAM, NETHERLANDS – Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia and a once-powerful warlord, was sentenced Wednesday to 50 years in prison for his role in atrocities committed in Sierra Leone during its civil war.
The judge presiding over the sentencing in an international criminal court near The Hague said Taylor had been found guilty of “aiding and abetting, as well as planning, some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history” and that the lengthy prison term underscored his position at the top of government during that period. “Leadership must be carried out by example by the prosecution of crimes, not the commission of crimes,” the judge, Richard Lussick, said.
Taylor was the first head of state convicted by an international court since the Nuremberg trials after World War II.
Prosecutors had sought an even longer sentence of 80 years. If carried out, the term decided Wednesday would likely mean Taylor, 64, will spend the rest of his life behind bars. His legal team said it would appeal.
“The sentence is clearly excessive, clearly disproportionate to his circumstances, his age and his health and does not take into account the fact that he stepped down from office voluntarily,” said Morris Anya, one of the lawyers representing Taylor.
The prosecution said it was considering its own appeal, both to lengthen the sentence and to broaden the responsibility attributed to Taylor for crimes committed under his leadership. Two rebel commanders in Sierra Leone tried earlier were handed prison sentences of 50 and 52 years, and a prosecutor said Taylor’s overall responsibility was considerably greater. The prosecutor also said Taylor did not freely leave office but was pushed out by a rebel offensive and by a delegation of African leaders urging him to stem further bloodshed.
Outside the courthouse, Salamba Silla, who works with victims groups in Sierra Leone, pleaded for more help for former child soldiers, orphans and other war victims. “You can see hundreds of them begging on the streets of Freetown,” she said.
After more than a year of deliberations, the Special Court for Sierra Leone found Taylor guilty in late April of crimes against humanity and war crimes for his part in fomenting murder, rape, the use of child soldiers and other atrocities. Prosecutors said Taylor was motivated by “pure avarice” and a thirst for power.
Although fighting in one of the world’s poorest regions involved Liberia and threatened to spill over into neighboring West African countries, the court’s mandate covered only those crimes in Sierra Leone between 1996 and 2002. Taylor was the special court’s last defendant.
His trial began in 2006, and lasted more than twice as long as planned. Since then, 115 witnesses have given testimony, including men with their hands chopped off, and women who were raped and who saw the severed heads of relatives.
The three-panel bench, made up of judges from Uganda, Samoa and Ireland, seemed to bend over backward in giving Taylor great leeway. He spent seven months — covering 81 trial days — in the witness chair, telling his life story without ever being cut off for digressions or political statements.