The Special Court for Sierra Leone has found Charles Taylor guilty of aiding, abetting and planning serious crimes after a five year trial. Taylor is the first former head of state to be found guilty by an international court since the Nuremberg trials sentenced Karl Doenitz to 10 years imprisonment in 1946. The trial was significant as Taylor failed to quash the charges on the basis he was head of state at the time of the indictment.
Charles Ghankay Taylor, the former President of Liberia, faced three charges over a period from 1996 to 2002 crimes against humanity including murder, rape and enslavement, violation of the Geneva Conventions including violence, terrorism and pillage, and other serious violation of international humanitarian law including use of child soldiers.
Taylor was secretly indicted on 7 March 2003. The indictment was made public three months later on his first trip outside of Liberia. He resigned in August and went into exile in Nigeria. He was transferred to the Special Court three years later. Due to security concerns about holding the trial in Sierra Leone, the Special Court arranged for it to be held at the ICC offices in The Hague. The trial began in June 2007, but Taylor boycotted proceedings and demanded a new legal team. The prosecution finally opened in January 2008 and took 13 months to get testimony from 91 witnesses. After a delay while an acquit notice was thrown out, the defence opened in July 2009 and took 16 months to collect testimony from 20 witnesses including Taylor.
Taylor studied in America where he protested against then Liberian leader William Tolbert in 1979. He supported the Samuel Doe coup a year later and was appointed to Doe’s government. He fled Liberia after embezzling a million dollars but was arrested in the US on another embezzlement charge. He escaped prison though there is strong evidence he was assisted by the CIA who used him as an agent in Africa.
Taylor went to Libya as one of many West African revolutionaries trained by Gaddafi’s army in the late 1980s. There he met Foday Sankoh the head of Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front. As leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, Taylor provided a training camp for the RUF in Liberia as well as instructors, recruits and material support. The RUF attacked Sierra Leone from Liberia with the aid of NPLF troops in March 1991. But the two invaders fell out a year later and Taylor withdrew his NPLF army.
Nevertheless he continued to play an active involvement in the war sending arms, ammunition and other supplies across a porous border ensuring the bitter fighting continued for another five years. The RUF ignored the Abidjan Peace Accord of November 1996 and Sankoh was invited to join the government after an army coup in May 1997. An ECOMOG force intervened in March 1998, expelled the junta from the capital Freetown, arrested Sankoh and reinstated Tejan Kabbah’s democratically elected Government.
Renegade forces under Sam Bockarie kept up the fight in the provinces and Bockarie went to Liberia to meet Taylor who was now president. Taylor stressed to Bockarie the importance of re-taking the mineral stronghold of Kono so Taylor could resume the trade in guns and ammunition for Sierra Leone diamonds. Taylor told Bockarie to make his campaign fearful to pressure the Sierra Leone Government to release Sankoh from prison and use “all means” including terror tactics to take Freetown.
Bockarie named the attack Operation No Living Thing and anything that stood in their way would be eliminated. He retook Kono in December 1998 and attacked Freetown in January 1999. He kept in close contact with Taylor who provided him a satellite phone. The Liberian president also sent troops and facilitated the purchase and transport of a large shipment of arms and ammunition from Burkina Faso used in the Kono attack. After Sankoh was released from prison in 1999 he delivered diamonds to Taylor as did other RUF leaders until cessation of hostilities in 2002. Sierra Leone diamonds were prized as much greater quality than Liberian ones.
The defence claimed Taylor was a diplomatic force for peace. But as president of Liberia and a member of the ECOWAS Committee he wielded considerable influence over the warring factions in Sierra Leone. While publicly participating in regional efforts to broker peace, Taylor was secretly fuelling hostilities between the RUF and the Sierra Leone government. While the Court could not find a chain of command between Taylor and Sankoh it was satisfied he gave guidance, advice, guns and money that aided and abetted multiple murders, rape, slavery and other offences as well as planning the attacks on Kono and Freetown in 1998 and 1999. Taylor is likely to appeal the decision.