THE HAGUE (Reuters) - A United Nations-backed court convicted former Liberian president Charles Taylor of war crimes and crimes against humanity, the first time a head of state has been found guilty by an international tribunal since the Nazi trials at Nuremberg.
The first African leader to stand trial for war crimes, Taylor had been charged with 11 counts of murder, rape, conscripting child soldiers and sexual slavery during intertwined wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, when more than 50,000 people were killed.
The warlord-turned-president was accused of directing Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in a campaign of terror to plunder Sierra Leone’s diamond mines for profit and to obtain weapons.
On Thursday, the court ruled that Taylor, 64, was criminally responsible for aiding and abetting the crimes, and found him guilty of providing weapons, food, medical supplies, fuel and equipment to forces in Sierra Leone that committed atrocities.
But it said he was not guilty of either ordering or planning the atrocities - a disappointment for the prosecution and a decision that could eventually result in a lighter sentence.
“The trial chamber, having already found the accused guilty of aiding and abetting, does not find the accused also instigated these crimes,” Presiding Judge Richard Lussick said.
Wearing a dark blue suit and maroon tie, Taylor looked calm and subdued as the presiding judge took more than two hours to read out the charges, evidence and final ruling.
The litany of gruesome crimes covered rapes and enslavement, beheadings and disembowelings, amputations and other mutilations carried out by child soldiers notorious for being high on drugs and dressed in fright wigs.
“A civilian was killed in full public view and then his body was disemboweled and his intestines stretched across the road to make a checkpoint. Women and children were raped in public, people were burned alive in their homes,” the judge said.
“The purpose of these atrocities was to instill terror in the civilian population.”
And in return for providing arms and ammunition for the conflict, the judge recounted how Taylor had received “blood diamonds”, as the stones from Sierra Leone’s conflict zones were known, including a 45-carat diamond and two 25-carat diamonds.
The trial attracted international attention, not just because of Taylor himself but because supermodel Naomi Campbell was called as a witness by the prosecution in an attempt to show that Taylor was knowingly trading weapons for diamonds.
The prosecution said Taylor had sent uncut diamonds to Campbell’s hotel room after a dinner given by Nelson Mandela, attended by both her and Taylor. She told the court she had no idea who had sent her the diamonds, which she called “dirty little pebbles”.
Human rights groups and victims welcomed the court’s decision, with some saying it would serve as a strong warning to other leaders responsible for atrocities in conflict zones.
“Taylor’s conviction sends a powerful message that even those in the highest-level positions can be held to account for grave crimes,” Elise Keppler, senior counsel for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
“Not since Nuremberg has an international or hybrid war crimes court issued a judgment against a current or former head of state. This is a victory for Sierra Leonean victims, and all those seeking justice when the worst abuses are committed.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney said: “While there is no way fully to redress the suffering and loss of those who were killed, tortured, raped, and enslaved in the service of Taylor’s criminal schemes, we are hopeful that today’s ruling will help to dissuade others who might follow in his footsteps.”
He said in a statement that the court “sent a clear signal that neither rank nor title will shield from justice those who perpetrate the most egregious of crimes.”
A sentencing hearing is scheduled for May 16, with a decision expected later that month.
Court sources said the judges had earlier been in disagreement over the verdict and were not speaking to each other at the end.
Carsten Stahn, professor of international criminal law at the University of Leiden, said the decision to convict unanimously was a surprise.
“There have been rumors of conflicts between the judges in the trial chamber, which is partly why it’s taken so long to reach a verdict,” he said.
El Hadji Malick Sow, who as alternate judge sat through the six years of the trial but was excluded from deliberations, sought to express a dissenting opinion at the end.
“The guilt of the accused from the evidence provided in this trial is not proved beyond reasonable doubt,” he said, remaining in the chamber after his colleagues had left and his microphone had been switched off.
Victims were in no doubt about the conviction.
“I‘m so happy that justice has been done,” said Alhaji Jusu Jarka, 46, who had both hands amputated during an attack on Freetown on January 6, 1999.
Standing outside the special court in Freetown, he told Reuters he hoped Taylor would get “100 or more years” when sentenced.
Taylor has denied the charges, insisting he tried to bring peace to the region and arguing his trial was a politically motivated conspiracy by Western nations.
But the judge said that “the accused was publicly promoting peace, while privately providing arms to the RUF,” adding that “There was a constant flow ... of diamonds from Sierra Leone to the accused, often in exchange for arms and ammunition.”
Liberian Senator Sando Johnson, a family spokesman, said: “We will not give up in this fight and we will not give up this struggle. We are going to stand by Mr Taylor until death do us part.”
At the start of the hearing, Taylor seemed relaxed, waving at some people sitting in the public gallery, and separated from the windowless trial chamber by a thick pane of glass.
Later, as the presiding judge’s reading of the judgment appeared to swing against Taylor, the former president clasped his hands more tensely in front of him.
Taylor, a former Baptist who converted to the Jewish faith, is one of just a handful of former leaders who have appeared before the international courts.
The International Criminal Court, also in The Hague, is pursuing several investigations with mixed success.
Last year it arrested former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo, who is charged with individual responsibility on counts of crimes against humanity -- murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, persecution, and other inhuman acts.
It issued an arrest warrant for Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the country’s late leader, but is caught in a battle with the Libyan authorities over where Saif, who was captured last year but remains in Libyan hands, should be tried.
Former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic died in The Hague in 2006 before the war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia could reach its verdict.
The Taylor case was closely watched for its security implications, with a U.S. diplomat warning in the WikiLeaks cables that if Taylor was acquitted or given a light sentence, his return to Liberia could threaten “a fragile peace”.
Taylor’s trial was moved to The Hague in June 2006 due to fears that a trial in Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown could kindle unrest in Sierra Leone or Liberia.
Additional reporting by Simon Akam in Freetown, Clair MacDougall and Alphonso Toweh in Monrovia, Bienvenu Bakumanya in Kinshasa and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Sara Webb; Editing by Alison Williams, Giles Elgood and Philip Barbara