Taylor Trial: A step away from impunity, a leap forward for justice?
Eleven years after the official declaration of the end of Sierra Leone’s civil war, Charles Ghankay Taylor was sentenced today to 50 years imprisonment by the Special Court for Sierra Leone sitting in The Hague. Taylor was unanimously found guilty on April 26 th , 2012 of all eleven counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and serious violations of international humanitarian law.
He was found guilty for knowingly aiding and abetting the rebels in Sierra Leone and planning the commission of the attacks on Kono and Makeni in December 1998, and in the invasion of and retreat from Freetown between December 1998 and February 1999, during the atrocities.
In the sentencing, Justice Richard Lussick said Taylor's crimes were of the "utmost gravity in terms of scale and brutality". He noted that "The lives of many more innocent civilians in Sierra Leone were lost or destroyed as a direct result of his actions" and that "the special status of Mr. Taylor as a head of state puts him in a different category of offenders for the purpose of sentencing."
Many in the sub-region were hoping for a stiffer sentence for Charles Taylor for many reasons. The verdict and sentence is also one that is symbolic.
For over 70 years, Karl Donitz, Adolf Hitler's successor was distinctly the only head of state to be convicted by an international tribunal. Taylor’s conviction changed that. It sends a powerful message to the ‘big men’ of West Africa and the world over that they could be made to answer for what they did to the ‘small’ ones. There is no hiding place for leaders who commit atrocities. No country or despot is too far from international justice. They will be brought to book no matter how long or how much it costs.
Taylor and his cohorts never thought the Special Court for Sierra Leone would have the means to bring them to book, and believed that the international community would lack the appetite to try them. We now see they were very wrong. This verdict and sentence will send shivers down the spine of Omar Al-Bashir and Hissene Habre, both of whom await their day in court, as well as any others who may be hatching plans for similar heinous crimes in the sub-region and beyond. In the words of Justice Lussick, “(L)eadership must be carried out by example by the prosecution of crimes, not the commission of crimes.”
The Special Court’s verdict and sentence once again underscores the efforts that have been made by Sierra Leoneans and Liberians to put the ugly chapter of maiming, death, destruction and displacement behind them as they strive to rebuild their lives. For many of the victims in Sierra Leone, this sentence will finally help bring closure to their tremendous grieving and untold suffering. Many are disappointed that a colossal amount was used to bring Taylor to justice, but few will complain about the length of his sentence. These victims gained satisfaction and a measure of healing from the day Taylor was apprehended. The length of the sentence will not bring back the dead nor replace the lost arms and limbs, but it does ensure that the man many hold responsible for the mayhem will no longer be free to unleash further havoc.
Taylor remains quite popular in Liberia partly due to his unquestionable generosity with the use of national resources and his tenacity in playing a key role in Liberian politics. This raises concern throughout the sub-region, both among other Liberians and other nationals, to such an extent that some Liberians have even resolved to stay out of their country as long as there was a possibility of Mr. Taylor returning or being set free elsewhere. This apprehension is further exacerbated, because, despite his incarceration, Taylor still wields significant power in the region through his alleged ‘standby mobile’ combatants that maintain command structures. Today’s sentencing, will hopefully allow many to finally be rest assured that Taylor will not be back to create further mayhem even with the possibility of a final lenient sentence in the coming months
In both Sierra Leone and Liberia, the Taylor case serves as a painful reminder of the atrocities of war and the painful journey of seeking justice for such atrocities. The conditions that culminated in the wars still persist.. There is still endemic corruption, impunity by government officials, bad governance and high level of poverty. These were the same social conditions that provided a fertile environment for the horrors of the wars for which Taylor was convicted. They still pose challenges to the stability of the region. Sierra Leone and Liberia must therefore take concrete steps to address these challenges in order to build stable nations and consolidate on the achievements of the past decade.
Article written by Joe Pemagbi, OSIWA's Sierra Leone Country Officer
May 30, 2012 - FREETOWN, SIERRA LEONE