Former Liberian President Charles Taylor was found guilty by an international tribunal for supporting fighters to commit atrocities during an 11-year civil war in neigboring Sierra Leone.
Sentencing will take place on May 30, Justice Richard Lussick said after a more than two hour-long reading of the court’s verdict in The Hague. Taylor can appeal the verdict.
Taylor, 64, is the first former head of state to be convicted by an international court for war crimes since the Nuremberg trials after World War Two. He was charged with 11 counts, including terrorizing civilians, murder, rape and kidnapping children to use as soldiers, according to the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which was set up by the West African nation and the United Nations in 2002.
The verdict is a “stark warning to other heads of state who are committing similar crimes, or contemplating doing so,” Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in an e-mailed statement from Geneva. “This is undoubtedly a historic moment in the development of international justice.”
Taylor’s trial has been held at the International Criminal Court in The Hague since 2007 because of security reasons.
Sierra Leone’s civil war between the government and Revolutionary United Front guerrillas, backed by Taylor, left 50,000 dead and displaced 2 million before both sides agreed to a cease-fire in 2000. The RUF rebels gained notoriety for amputating the limbs of their victims.
“As a country, we see the verdict as a healing process and a psychological victory for the many amputees in the country,” Abdulai Bayraytay, an official at the Information and Communication Ministry, told reporters in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital.
Taylor came to prominence in Liberia by leading a group of rebels into the country in 1989, starting a civil war that lasted until 1996. He won an election in 1997, becoming president until he resigned in 2003. He went into exile in Nigeria amid international pressure after the Sierra Leone court indictment and was arrested in 2006.
“The verdict can’t heal the pain of losing a loved one, but I’m happy we have gotten justice,” said Mary Mbayo, a registered nurse at Lungi Government Hospital whose husband was killed during a rebel invasion of Freetown in January 1999. She had fled the RUF from the eastern town of Kailahun in 1991.
Liberia shares a 306-kilometer (190-mile) border with Sierra Leone. Both nations remain among the least developed in the world, with Sierra Leone ranking 180 and Liberia at 182 on the United Nations Human Development Index of 187 countries.
UN Mission in Liberia troops were deployed around the capital, Monrovia, before the verdict today as President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf called for calm in a statement. Supporters of Taylor claimed the trial was orchestrated by the international community.
“The American and British have succeeded in their conspiracy against Liberia,” said Senator Sando Johnson, a spokesman for Taylor’s family.
David Kortie, a former lawmaker and Taylor ally, said the verdict should be accepted. “We are going to accept it because we cannot go against the will of the international community,” he said.
Scores of other crimes committed during the war have yet to be investigated, according to Amnesty International Sierra Leone Director Brima Abdulai Sheriff.
“Thousands of persons suspected of criminal responsibility for incidences of unlawful killings, rape and sexual violence, mutilations and the use of children in Sierra Leone’s armed conflict have never been investigated, much less prosecuted,” he said in an e-mailed statement.
Former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who was the first head of state to be tried by an international criminal tribunal, died before a verdict was given, according to Human Rights Watch. Laurent Gbagbo, former president of Ivory Coast, is the first former leader to appear at the ICC on war crimes.
In the years since the conflicts ended, the two countries have held elections that were deemed to be free and fair by international observers.
Johnson-Sirleaf, who in 2009 apologized for her past support of Taylor, won a second term in office last year. In Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma will face voters in his second-term bid later this year.
“The Taylor prosecution at the Special Court delivers a strong message to all perpetrators of atrocities, including those in the highest positions of power, that they will be held accountable, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.