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Conviction of Liberia's Charles Taylor seen as double-edged

A war crimes court's verdict sends a message to other warlords, but it also could hinder peace negotiations, analysts say.

April 27, 2012|By Robyn Dixon and Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times
  • Alhaji Jusu Jarka, chairman of a Sierra Leone amputees group, walks outside the court in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where the trial of Charles Taylor was being broadcast from the Netherlands. Taylor, Liberia's former leader, was convicted of war crimes.
Alhaji Jusu Jarka, chairman of a Sierra Leone amputees group, walks outside… (Issouf Sanogo, AFP/Getty…)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The litany of abuses was chilling: mass murder, rape, sexual slavery. Forcing children to fight. Chopping off victims' limbs.

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor's conviction Thursday by an international tribunal in the Netherlands on charges of abetting such war crimes in the West African country of Sierra Leone sent a powerful message to other warlords that they will eventually face justice, human rights activists and prosecutors say.

But it also highlights what can be a wrenching tension between pursuing justice or peace first in some of the world's most violent, chaotic corners.

Taylor's destiny, a sentence that may well see him spending the rest of his life in prison, could encourage others to fight to the end rather than trying to negotiate an escape, as Libya'sMoammar Kadafi chose to do last year.

Taylor armed and supported militias, traded arms for "blood diamonds" in Sierra Leone, and allegedly used child soldiers in the 1989-96 Liberian civil war, which killed some 200,000 people.

The verdict, at a special U.N.-backed court, related only to his role in supporting Revolutionary United Front rebels in Sierra Leone, where about 50,000 people died. In its 1991-2002 reign of terror, the RUF was notorious for hacking off people's limbs, rape on a wide scale, abducting girls and women as sex slaves, and forcing children to fight after killing their parents and fellow villagers.

Taylor stepped down as Liberian president in 2003 in return for avoiding prosecution, and took up residence in a mansion in Nigeria. Several months earlier, he had been indicted by the special court created to try crimes committed in the Sierra Leone conflict. Under international pressure, then-Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo allowed him to be arrested as he tried to leave the country in 2006.

On Thursday, the bespectacled Taylor, 64, wore a navy suit, red tie, white shirt, gold cuff links and signet ring, jotting occasional notes as he listened with furrowed brow to Judge Richard Lussick read the verdict. The proceedings were broadcast live on television and the Internet, and watched by a rapt audience at a remote viewing venue in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Lussick detailed how Taylor, in exchange for diamonds, facilitated huge arms shipments to the rebels and offered financial support, training and a base in the Liberian capital, Monrovia. The judge described how more than 1,000 children had the letters RUF carved into their backs by the militia to prevent them from running away.

Critics have argued that by giving in to pressure from the U.S., other Western nations and human rights activists, Nigeria undermined efforts to rein in similar abuses or persuade warlords to give up power.

David M. Crane, a Syracuse University law professor who crafted the indictment against Taylor, acknowledged that there can be tension between the pursuit of peace versus justice.

"Sometimes justice has to wait until there is peace," Crane said. "But certainly justice has to be done. At the end of the day you have to have justice, because the people who suffered and saw members of their families suffer, demand it."

Crane, who flew to The Hague for Thursday's verdict, described the judgment as "hugely significant," and predicted Taylor would spend the rest of his life behind bars. He will be sentenced May 30.

The prosecution presented 94 witnesses, including testimony by actress Mia Farrow and supermodel Naomi Campbell about a 1997 dinner party after which Taylor gave Campbell rough diamonds. Taylor's lawyers argued that the case against him was political, designed to keep Taylor out of power in Liberia.

An International Criminal Court was established a decade ago, but it has jurisdiction only over crimes allegedly committed after it was founded. U.N.-backed special courts handle cases growing out of long-running conflicts such as those in Sierra Leone, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone, set up under an agreement between the U.N. and Sierra Leone in 2002, has convicted eight other people of war crimes, including three RUF leaders.

The African Union, which takes the lead in pressing violent leaders to step down or sort out disputed elections on the continent, is often criticized by Western rights groups for trading away prosecutions to secure peace.

It tried to negotiate a settlement of the Libyan uprising last year. The International Criminal Court indicted Kadafi, his son and his intelligence chief last year for their violent efforts to put down a NATO-backed uprising inspired by the"Arab Spring" unrest. But the African Union's proposal went nowhere and Kadafi chose to keep fighting until he was captured and killed.

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