LEIDSCHENDAM, Netherlands (AP) — More than a decade after he helped rebels go on a murderous rampage in Sierra Leone, Charles Taylor was definitively convicted and imprisoned Thursday for 50 years, in a ruling that provided redemption for victims and underscored how hard it is for international courts to prosecute world leaders.
Taylor is the first former head of state convicted by an international war crimes court since World War II and Thursday's confirmation was welcomed as underscoring a new era of accountability for heads of state.
"Taylor's conviction sends a powerful message that those at the top can be held to account on the gravest crimes," said Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch. Stephen Rapp, the ambassador for war crimes issues at the U.S. Department of State and former prosecutor at the Sierra Leone court, said the ruling "sends a clear message to all the world, that when you commit crimes like this, it may not happen overnight, but there will be a day of reckoning."
However, it also appeared to establish dueling sets of jurisprudence at two international courts on opposite sides of The Hague on the question of when senior officials can support one side in another country's civil war — an issue world leaders must consider if they mull over arming rebels in Syria.
The Sierra Leone appeals panel rejected a controversial February ruling by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which said that to prove a leader has aided and abetted a crime, the assistance has to be specifically directed at committing a crime. In that case, the former chief of staff of the Yugoslav national army was acquitted of aiding and abetting atrocities by Bosnian Serb forces even though he had sent them arms and other supplies.
Taylor's case appeared to swing the pendulum back toward a lower burden of proof for prosecutors. His lawyer complained that the two rulings have created "entirely chaotic jurisprudence" at international tribunals.
If Taylor had been prosecuted by the Yugoslav tribunal, "I dare say the outcome would have been different, and that courthouse is less than 10 kilometers (six miles) away from this courthouse," Morris Anyah said.
But international law expert Michael Scharf of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, said the ruling Thursday "righted the ship" after the Yugoslav court had made prosecuting leaders who support rebels much more difficult.
Anyah also complained that Taylor had been prosecuted because of a lack of friends in high places, again referring to Syria. "But for two powerful nations, two members of the Security Council — Russia and China — Bashar Assad would have been charged and indicted by the International Criminal Court. That is not happening simply because of political reasons," he said. "Had Charles Taylor had as friends any of the five permanent members of the Security Council ... this case I dare say would probably not have had the sort of traction it had."
Because Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court, only the Security Council asking the court to investigate could trigger jurisdiction there. Wearing a black suit and a gold-colored tie, Taylor showed little emotion while Presiding Judge George Gelaga King read the unanimous verdict of the six-judge panel.
Anyah said Taylor was bitterly disappointed by the ruling that will likely see him spend the rest of his life behind bars, but "he has remained stoic and calm." It remains unclear where he will serve his sentence. Great Britain has offered cell space, but the court also has agreements with Finland, Sweden and Rwanda to house prisoners.
The court found Taylor provided crucial aid to rebels in Sierra Leone during that country's 11-year civil war, which left an estimated 50,000 people dead before its conclusion in 2002. Thousands more were left mutilated in a conflict that became known for its extreme cruelty, as rival rebel groups hacked off the limbs of their victims and carved their groups' initials into opponents. The rebels developed gruesome terms for the mutilations, offering victims the choice of "long sleeves" or "short sleeves" — having their hands hacked off or their arms sliced off above the elbow.
Back in Sierra Leone, Edward Conteh, who lost his lower left arm when rebels chopped it off with an ax, said he was elated with Taylor's conviction. "Impunity must stop in Africa, so I'm very happy over the decision," he told The Associated Press. "At 65, I don't know whether he will ever breathe the free air that I do breathe."
Conteh, who today leads an organization that aids war amputees, said Taylor's sentence closed a chapter but that some 2,000 people still live with amputations and other serious injuries from the war. Many live in abject poverty with little means to support their families.
But Taylor supporters in Liberia remained loyal to the former warlord who was later democratically elected the country's president. "We are here. We will always be here; and we will always be loyal to Mr. Taylor no matter what the international community thinks," said Henry Brown, the caretaker of Taylor's palace in the Congotown township of the capital, Monrovia.
Taylor's brother-in-law Arthur Saye said he wasn't surprised by the verdict. "From Day One my position has been that the trial of Mr. Taylor was orchestrated by the powers that be — the Western powers," he told The Associated Press. "This was an international conspiracy."
Associated Press writers Toby Sterling in Leidschendam, Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal and Jonathan Paye-Layleh in Monrovia, Liberia contributed to this report.