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Ian Birrell: A warning shot to the world's despots

The evidence was gruesome. One witness told how he watched his sister being raped and an old woman have her throat slit; another how he saw a pregnant woman buried alive; a third of how she was enslaved and branded; a fourth of how he had first one arm, then the other, chopped off with an axe.

No one doubted the depths of depravity during the decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone, which left 50,000 dead, half the population in flight and a nation in ruins. The question was whether the brutality and bloodshed could be legally tied to Charles Taylor, the former Liberian leader.

Yesterday, after a six-year trial costing perhaps £150m, we learned that it could. In a landmark ruling, Taylor – who spent more than 50 days in the witness box presenting himself as a maligned peacemaker and victim of a witch-hunt – became the first former head of state convicted by an international court since the Nuremberg military trials of the Nazis.

This is a vital verdict, a much-needed warning shot to despots around the globe. The complex trial lasted far longer than planned, but it proves even the most powerful tyrants can end up behind bars like any other criminal.

Taylor, a Baptist lay preacher, will serve his time in Britain. No jail in West Africa was deemed secure enough to hold him, while the Netherlands did not want to hold him after the trial's end. So Tony Blair broke the deadlock by offering a jail in this country.

Some will criticise the cost of locking up this man here. They will be wrong. Britain's rightful intervention in 2000, with just 800 paratroopers, turned the fortunes of Sierra Leone and re-affirmed strong historical links between our two nations. It is about the only place left on the planet where Mr Blair is still hailed a hero. Britain is well-placed to benefit as the region prospers.

There remain some qualms over the ICC, however. It was formed in 2002, a legacy of the horrors inflicted on Rwanda and Bosnia, but until last month, when it found a Congolese warlord guilty, it had failed to secure a conviction. Early cases were badly mishandled.

Of seven countries currently under investigation, all are African, a fact that causes justified anxiety. The African Union has asked its 54 members not to co-operate with the court, while the former chief prosecutor has admitted they began by going after "low-hanging fruit".

The court will only really prove itself when it can shake off allegations it pursues the weak and provides cover for the West's political aims. History is, of course, written by the victors. So the loser of a Congolese election faces trial over atrocities in his region, but not equally unpleasant forces that supported the government – let alone the Rwandan or Ugandan leaders who sparked the Congolese carnage.

It will take the conviction of such a key Western ally, or a leader from a powerful nation, to prove no one is above the law when it comes to international crimes. Until then, we should applaud a significant step forward in the fight for global justice, but appreciate there remains some distance to travel.