Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president who was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity in April for acts committed during a civil war in the 1990s in the West African country of Sierra Leone, was sentenced today to 50 years’ imprisonment. Taylor, 64, was found guilty of all 11 counts against him, including rape, torture, murder, terrorism, sexual slavery and the use of child soldiers under age 15.
The prosecution had recommended that Taylor be given an 80-year sentence to ensure that he die in prison, saying the “gravity of the crimes is the litmus test” and noting his “willing and enthusiastic participation” in the crimes. If his 50-year sentence, imposed by Judge Richard Lussick of Samoa, is carried out, he is assuredly guaranteed to die in prison as well.
Taylor led a cohort of his own Liberian rebels and operated in concert with other militia, who gained notoriety for hacking off innocent people’s arms and legs as the rebels ran a terror campaign from village to village in Sierra Leone. At certain times, the rebels beheaded civilians and mounted them at checkpoints. They also forced women and girls to undress in public and raped them in public and in front of their families. The soldiers carved words into civilians’ bodies, and engraved “RUF,” for Revolutionary United Front, on their heads and backs. The child soldiers were also forced to cut off people’s limbs as well as guard diamond mines and fight.
Taylor expressed “sadness and deepest sympathy for the atrocities and crimes that were suffered by individuals and families in Sierra Leone” during the May 16 closing hearing at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which tried Taylor in an international criminal court near The Hague for security reasons. He added that he was not responsible for the crimes committed by rebel forces and that his prosecution was motivated by politics. He asked that “reconciliation and healing and not retribution should be the guiding principles” in determining his sentencing.
Taylor was first issued an arrest warrant in 2003, to which he responded by stepping down as president of Liberia and fleeing to Nigeria to avoid prosecution. He argued that his arrest be dropped since he had been a head of state when he was indicted and therefore immune to the court’s jurisdiction. The court denied this request, and in 2006, Nigeria arrested and sent him to the Sierra Leone court, a United Nations-backed tribunal, in Freetown, the capital. He was moved to The Hague court in 2006, pleading not guilty to all counts.
The long civil war in Sierra Leone involved several rebel groups as well as a homegrown military junta, which overthrew the democratic government of Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in May 1997 and invited the Liberian rebels to join them, calling the new government the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council. Taylor, who led the National Patriotic Front of Liberia and eventually became president of Liberia, was accused by the court for controlling all the militia undermining Sierra Leone from November 1996 to January 2002, the indictment period.
His trial took nearly four years, involved 115 witnesses and ended in March 2011. Judge Lussick, who read the sentence in court today, said the jurists deciding the sentencing trial found that Taylor’s abuse of his role as president of Liberia to aid and abet crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone put him “in a class of his own.”
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.