CHARLES Taylor, the warlord who became president of Liberia and one of the most bloodstained figures in African history, received a 50-year jail term yesterday for "aiding and abetting" crimes against humanity.
Taylor, the first former head of state to face international justice since the Nuremberg trials, stood rigid and emotionless as punishment was imposed.
He will serve his sentence in Britain where he is expected to be a “category A” inmate fit only for a maximum-security prison. If so, the cost to the British taxpayer will be about £100,000 per year.
Taylor’s humbling caused jubilation in Sierra Leone, where he fuelled a brutal civil war during his time as president of neighbouring Liberia. Last month, a United Nations Special Court found that Taylor had given weapons, money, bases and recruits to a rebel army which laid waste to Sierra Leone between 1991 and 2002.
This ragtag force, styling itself the Revolutionary United Front, specialised in hacking the arms and legs off its victims. Taylor helped the RUF in return for “blood diamonds” taken illegally from Sierra Leone’s mines. That made him responsible for “aiding and abetting” the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by RUF fighters, the court found.
“His punishment is very welcome news,” said Mohammed Samoura, a former editor of the Sierra Leone news agency who lives in the capital, Freetown. “But some people here feel the sentence is too short.”
Jan 6 1999, the RUF launched a bloody onslaught against Freetown, reaching the heart of the capital and mutilating their victims in the city’s streets. The court found that Taylor had sent Liberians to fight alongside the RUF during this assault. Sierra Leoneans bitterly remember an event which they call “January 6” in the same way that Americans refer to “9/11”.
“When you take into consideration all the suffering and atrocities in this country, the average man feels the 50-year sentence is very light,” added Mr Samoura, noting that the prosecution had recommended 80 years. “On the radio here, most people were saying they were disappointed as they wanted a death sentence.”
Taylor, 64, has the option of appealing against the sentence and he will remain in The Hague until any proceedings are complete. Mr Justice Richard Lussick, the presiding judge, described his crimes as being of the “utmost gravity in terms of scale and brutality”. He added: “The lives of many more innocent civilians in Sierra Leone were lost or destroyed as a direct result of his actions.”
Taylor, who wore a dark suit with a yellow tie, was told to stand as Mr Justice Lussick said: “The trial chamber unanimously sentences you to a single term of imprisonment of 50 years for all of the counts on which you have been found guilty.”
The judges had considered 80 years to be excessive given that Taylor’s offence was “aiding and abetting” war crimes, not directly carrying them out, added Mr Justice Lussick.
Taylor, a Baptist lay preacher, was elected president of Liberia in 1997 after waging a guerrilla war for eight years, during which he recruited child soldiers into a specialist “Small Boys Unit”. His young and brainwashed followers called him “pappy”, believing that he was a man with magical powers.
He was overthrown in 2003 and went into exile in Nigeria, before being handed over for trial. While Taylor is loathed in Sierra Leone, he still has supporters in Liberia where a new government under President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is trying to rebuild a country he reduced to a failed state.