If there is an enduring image of all the horrific wars in Africa, one in particular has the power to reach across the years. It is the sight of the maimed and mutilated children in Sierra Leone, their limbs hacked off by child soldiers high on drugs who were as young as their victims.
The man responsible for that infamy was Charles Taylor, the president of neighbouring Liberia whose 50-year jail sentence was upheld by a UN-backed appeals court on Thursday, in the first conviction of a former head of state by an international court since Nuremberg. He is to serve out the sentence in Britain.
Mutilation, rape and abductions were the hallmark of the civil war launched by rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in the early 1990s. The war was funded by the illegally mined so-called “blood diamonds”, from mines in eastern Sierra Leone, which were smuggled to Taylor, the former brutal warlord turned president who in return supplied, trained and armed the rebels. He was convicted by the UN court of “aiding and abetting” the rebels in their reign of terror during the war that claimed 50,000 lives between 1991 and 2001.
Taylor, a flamboyant showman now grizzled at 65, consistently denied any responsibility and pleaded not guilty. He depicted himself as a statesman and West African peacemaker who had only dealt with the rebels “to push the peace process hard”, when conducting his own defence over a seven-month period. But after a four-year trial the UN court found him guilty of 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, torture and the use of child soldiers.
Taylor will forever be associated with the conflicts that convulsed West Africa for more than a decade, and cast a long shadow over the region where he wreaked violence and havoc from Guinea to Cote d’Ivoire.
He was one of seven children born to an Americo-Liberian father, descended from the freed slaves who founded the country and who remained politically influential. His mother was a native Liberian from the Golah tribe. Like many other Americo-Liberians, Taylor studied in America, and became active in radical student politics as chairman of the Union of Liberian Associations at his college in Bentley, Massachusetts.
He returned home to work with Liberian president Samuel Doe who seized power in 1980. But the two fell out and Taylor fled back to America where he served a short jail sentence after being accused by Doe of embezzling more than $1m.
He subsequently led a Libyan-backed rebellion in 1989 against Doe who was captured, tortured, mutilated and summarily executed on a Monrovia beach seven months later. “The only good Doe is a dead Doe,” Taylor is reported to have said.
The horror was just beginning. Doe’s death at the hands of forces loyal to Prince Johnson, triggered a five-year conflict between the Americo- Liberian fighters led by Taylor and Johnson’s rival forces. In 1991, the RUF launched their revolt in Sierra Leone, and another civil war was kindled.
Liberian peace accords were finally signed in Monrovia in 1995, paving the way for elections which Taylor won by a wide margin in 1997, amid charges that supporters had been terrorised into voting for him. But his presidency was undercut by domestic opponents who took up arms against him in 1999, and by international pressures stemming from his involvement in the Sierra Leone conflict.
In 2003, with the Liberian rebels gaining strength in the mineral-rich country and having entered Monrovia, he was indicted by a UN-backed Special Court for his role in the Sierra Leone fighting and fled to Nigeria. But he was accused of meddling in Liberian politics from there. A total 200,000 people were killed in the two Liberian civil wars over a 14-year period.
Liberia’s fortunes changed for the better following the 2006 election of Ellen Sirleaf Johnson as president. She pushed for Taylor’s prosecution by the Sierra Leone war crimes tribunal despite protests by his followers. He was arrested in Nigeria the same year after she requested his extradition.
But in those early days of the UN court, it was by no means clear that regional stability would be restored by Taylor’s arrest amid fears that loyalists might take up arms again. As a result, the trial was moved to The Hague for security reasons. The Special Court was set up under an ad hoc arrangement between the UN and Sierra Leone and was not covered by the permanently-sitting International Criminal Court, which can only rule on war crimes and crimes against humanity committed after 2002.
UN prosecutors doggedly pressed the Taylor case, calling such witnesses as the British model Naomi Campbell and the US actress Mia Farrow to the bar, when the trial opened in 2007. Campbell recounted how, after a 1997 dinner party hosted by Nelson Mandela in South Africa, she had found “a few stones” outside her hotel door. “They were small stones, dirty looking stones.” According to Farrow, the blood diamonds were a gift from Taylor, who denied any knowledge of the incident and has never admitted to trading in the precious stones to fund the Sierra Leone conflict.
Like another dictator, Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, Taylor was careful not to take direct command. But he provided essential weaponry, training and safe haven for the Sierra Leone fighters, many of whom were abducted, given marijuana or crack cocaine and sent into the bush with AK47s to kill and maim entire families. Victims would be asked if they preferred “long sleeves” or “short sleeves” before their hands or their arms above the elbow were hacked off.
After being found guilty last year by the Special Court, Taylor appealed. But on Thursday the appeal chamber judges were unanimous in upholding the guilty verdict, which was described as “fair and reasonable”. The judges ignored an earlier ruling by the UN court for the former Yugoslavia which ordered the release of the former chief of the former Yugoslav army, General Momsilo Perisic, last February. He too had been accused of “aiding and abetting” human rights crimes, but the judges decided that Perisic had not “specifically directed” aid towards that end.
The Special Court has now heard its last case, but a new chapter opens in which the search for Taylor’s suspected hidden assets will resume. Victims of the Sierra Leone rebels’ atrocities will, theoretically at least, be able to pursue compensation through civil tribunals.
Looking back on the Taylor trial, John Petrie, formerly the chief of operations at the Sierra Leone Special Court and now a director of Aegis Trust, a British non-government organisation campaigning to prevent genocide worldwide, said: “It is easy now to think it was all inevitable, but that was not the case in 2002-05.
“Some very brave people took brave decisions to break the cycle of violence in the region and removing Taylor was central to that. He did not come quietly, but he has plenty of time to reflect.”
Taylor, a Baptist and one-time lay preacher, will indeed have plenty time to reflect in his cell on being held accountable for his sins. He once compared himself to Jesus Christ, telling the BBC: “Jesus Christ was accused of being a murderer in his time.”
According to Reed Brody, a lawyer and spokesman for Human Rights Watch who devoted 15 years working for the prosecution of Chadian dictator Hissène Habré, Taylor stood out because of his baleful influence over such a wide swath of West Africa.
“On a continent which has, unfortunately, seen its share of untouchable ‘big men’, the crimes of the rebels he supported in Sierra Leone, like their signature atrocity of cutting off victims’ arms and legs, and forcing children to execute their parents, were among the most heartless I have ever investigated,” Mr Brody said.
A Life In Brief
Born: Charles McArthur Taylor born in Arthington, Liberia, on 28 January 1948. He added the name “Ghankay” later, thought to be so that he could gain favour with the indigenous African majority
Family: Americo-Liberian father and Liberian mother. He has married three times and has 14 children
Education: Economics degree from Bentley College, Massachusetts, US
Career: After his studies in the US, Taylor returned to Liberia, just after Samuel Doe’s coup d’etat in 1980. He was given a role running the General Services Agency, in charge of much of Liberia’s budget. After being accused of embezzling, he fled to the US where he was arrested. He returned to Liberia to lead the 1989 overthrow of Doe. Elected president in 1997. A 1999 rebellion led to him seeking exile in Nigeria in 2003. Taylor was arrested and appeared at the Special Court for Sierra Leone in 2006.
What he says: “Jesus Christ was accused of being a murderer in his time”
What they say: “I had never heard of Charles Taylor before. I had never heard of the country Liberia before. I had never heard the term blood diamonds before.” Naomi Campbell, model, and witness in the Taylor’s war crimes trial