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Taylor Receives 50 Years for ‘Heinous’ Crimes in War

by Marlise Simons & J. David Goodman, The New York Times, May 30, 2012

After more than a year of deliberations, the Special Court for Sierra Leone found Mr. Taylor guilty in late April of crimes against humanity and war crimes for his part in fomenting mass brutality that included murder, rape, the use of child soldiers, the mutilation of thousands of civilians, and the mining of diamonds to pay for guns and ammunition. Prosecutors have said that Mr. Taylor was motivated in these gruesome actions not by any ideology but rather by “pure avarice” and a thirst for power.

LEIDSCHENDAM, Netherlands — Charles G. Taylor, the former president of Liberia and a once-powerful warlord, was sentenced on Wednesday to 50 years in prison over his role in atrocities committed in Sierra Leone during its civil war in the 1990s.

The judge presiding over the sentencing in an international criminal court near The Hague said Mr. Taylor had been found guilty of “aiding and abetting, as well as planning, some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history” and that the lengthy prison term underscored his position at the top of government during that period.

“Leadership must be carried out by example by the prosecution of crimes, not the commission of crimes,” the judge, Richard Lussick, said in a statement read before the court.

Mr. Taylor was the first head of state convicted by an international court since the Nuremberg trials after World War II.

Prosecutors had sought an even longer sentence of 80 years. If carried out, the term decided on Wednesday would likely mean the 64-year-old Mr. Taylor will spend the rest of his life behind bars. Asked to stand as the sentence was read, he looked at the floor.

His legal team said it would immediately appeal. “The sentence is clearly excessive, clearly disproportionate to his circumstances, his age and his health and does not take into account the fact that he stepped down from office voluntarily,” said Morris Anya, one of the lawyers representing Mr. Taylor.

The prosecution said it was considering its own appeal, both to lengthen the sentence and to broaden the responsibility attributed to Mr. Taylor for crimes committed under his leadership.

Two rebel commanders tried earlier by this court were handed similar prison sentences of 50 and 52 years respectively, and a prosecutor said that Mr. Taylor’s overall responsibility was considerably greater. The prosecutor also said that Mr. Taylor did not freely leave office but was pushed by a rebel offensive and by a delegation of African leaders urging him to stem further bloodshed.

Outside the courthouse, Salamba Silla, who works with victims groups in Sierra Leone pleaded for more help for former child soldiers, orphans and other victims of the country’s war. “You can see hundreds of them begging on the streets of Freetown,” she said. “Many who suffered horrendously need help to return to the provinces, they think they cannot survive there.”

Ibrahim Sorie, a lawmaker from Sierra Leone who had been seated in the court’s public gallery, said he found the sentence fair. “It restores our faith in the rule of law, and we see that impunity is ending for top people,” Mr. Sorie said.

After more than a year of deliberations, the Special Court for Sierra Leone found Mr. Taylor guilty in late April of crimes against humanity and war crimes for his part in fomenting mass brutality that included murder, rape, the use of child soldiers, the mutilation of thousands of civilians, and the mining of diamonds to pay for guns and ammunition. Prosecutors have said that Mr. Taylor was motivated in these gruesome actions not by any ideology but rather by “pure avarice” and a thirst for power.

The tribunal began in Sierra Leone and is still formally based there, but out of concern that holding hearings in West Africa would cause unrest among those who still support Mr. Taylor, it was moved to the town of Leidschendam outside of The Hague.

Though fighting in one of the world’s poorest regions involved Liberia and threatened to spill over into neighboring West African countries, the court’s mandate covered only those crimes in Sierra Leone between 1996 and 2002. During the trial, prosecutors introduced evidence and heard testimony of communications between Mr. Taylor’s residence in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, and the rebels in Sierra Leone.

The trial, lasting more than twice as long as planned, heard witnesses, including men with their hands chopped off, women who were raped and who saw the severed heads of relatives. There were also close associates and aides of Mr. Taylor. One aide described a secret bonding ritual in Liberia during which he and others joined Mr. Taylor in eating a human heart.

Diamonds, as well as atrocities, were also a recurrent theme in the 2,500-page judgment. Judges agreed with the prosecution that diamonds mined in Sierra Leone were used to pay for arms and ammunition that fueled Mr. Taylor’s proxy army and that rough diamonds were delivered at Mr. Taylor’s mansion in Monrovia.

One diamond story that proved a high point of publicity for the trial involved the court appearance of the supermodel Naomi Campbell. Prosecutors said Ms. Campbell had been sent uncut diamonds as a gift from Mr. Taylor after they attended a charity dinner hosted by Nelson Mandela, at the time the president of South Africa. Two of Ms. Campbell’s companions who recounted the episode in court, her agent, Carole White, and the actress Mia Farrow, were repeatedly called “liars” during cross-examination by the defense.

But the judges wrote that the two women were “frank and truthful witnesses,” contrasting them with Ms. Campbell, who they called a “reluctant witness” who “deliberately omitted certain details out of fear.” They added that “Campbell said she came to the realization that the diamonds were sent by Taylor.”

Eight other leading members of different forces and rebel groups have already been sentenced by the tribunal. Mr. Taylor is the special court’s last defendant. His trial began in 2006 and since then, 115 witnesses have given testimony.

The three-panel bench, made up of judges from Uganda, Samoa and Ireland, seemed to bend over backward in giving Mr. Taylor great leeway. He spent seven months — covering 81 trial days — in the witness chair, telling his life story without ever being cut off for digressions or political statements. He said he had heard about atrocities, saying “that nobody on this planet would not have heard about the atrocities in Sierra Leone” but that he would “never, ever” have permitted them.

Marlise Simons reported from Leidschendam, Netherlands, and J. David Goodman from New York.