Once the commanding and charismatic warlord, Charles Taylor cut a distant, bewildered, even pathetic figure in the courtroom on Thursday as he listened to the verdict in his landmark trial by a U.N.-backed tribunal in The Hague. Taylor, the former Liberian president, was unanimously found guilty of sponsoring murderous rebel groups in neighboring Sierra Leone's civil war and orchestrating a macabre catalogue of war crimes in the volatile West African region. As the chief justice at the Special Court for Sierra Leone delivered his verdict, the 64-year-old Taylor blinked nervously and seemed lost. He tried to speak afterwards, but his microphone was cut off and his appeals were ignored as the justices filed out of the courtroom.
The somber finale to Taylor's trial in the windowless courtroom on the outskirts of the Dutch capital marked a dramatic turnaround for the man who once reigned supreme in tropical jungles half a world away. It also represented a symbolic moment for Liberia and Sierra Leone as they come to terms with the legacy of his bloody campaigns in the 1990s. And as the first international court conviction of a national leader since the Nuremberg trials at the end of World War II, the verdict sent a signal to other world dictators that their misdeeds can catch up with them.
In the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown, where officials had set up special viewing sites for people to watch the verdict live, there was cheering and hugging when Taylor's conviction was announced. "It is a significant day, a momentous moment," says Comfort Ero, the Africa Program Director for the conflict resolution think tank International Crisis Group (ICG). "There is a sense of elation, but also poignancy. After many years of waiting patiently for the outcome, we have now seen some justice. It is a warning to those responsible for atrocities that will be accountable." She added, however, that the relief and vindication in Sierra Leone was not shared in Liberia, where Taylor is still popular, and many of his lieutenants still serve in public office. "There still needs to be a judgment for the others involved in crimes from that era," Ero says.
It's been more than two decades since Taylor seized power in Liberia, and nine years since he was toppled, but he still stands out as a uniquely wicked warlord. The court charged him with 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his involvement in Sierra Leone's civil war between 1991 and 2002, including murder, rape, mutilation, sexual slavery and conscripting child soldiers. Joseph Kony may have gotten the world's attention for his underage militia in Uganda thanks to the Kony2012 video released on YouTube this spring, but it was Taylor who pioneered the practice.
The six-year trial heard harrowing stories of how Taylor's forces unleashed a maelstrom of brutality across the region. Taylor aimed to make billions from exploiting the richest diamond fields in the world, and as many as 50,000 people were killed in the blood-soaked conflict that embroiled Sierra Leone and Liberia, even spreading into Ivory Coast and Guinea. During the trial, the court heard how the Taylor-sponsored rebels in Sierra Leone enslaved thousands of civilians, often hacking off their hands and feet. Some of the worst crimes were carried out by gangs of child soldiers as young as 8 years old who were fed drugs to desensitize them to the horror of their actions.
Taylor protested his innocence and portrayed himself as victim of neocolonialism. But his fate represents a more universal phenomenon, namely the internationalization of justice, and the prosecution of perpetrators of so-called atrocity crimes. "Powerful leaders like Charles Taylor have for too long lived comfortably above the law," says Elise Keppler, Human Rights Watch's senior international justice counsel. "Taylor's conviction sends a message to those in power that they can be held to account for grave crimes."
Taylor's conviction is a watershed moment for the world court systems, which have faced criticisms for being too slow, too expensive and overly staffed by Westerners. Only last month did the decade-old International Criminal Court (ICC) hand down its first verdict, finding Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, a Congolese warlord, guilty of abducting children and forcing them to serve as soldiers. But other leaders are being targeted: former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo is also in The Hague awaiting trial at the ICC.
According to Alex Vines, head of the Africa Program at the London-based Chatham House think tank, the verdict shows dictators and warlords everywhere that they cannot flee from world justice. "This is an important signal that the international community can deliver, and it will be a consideration for dictators in the future," says Vines, a former U.N. diamonds sanctions inspector for Liberia. However, indictments have to be timed carefully, he warns, pointing out that the recent ICC charges against Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir on charges of genocide in Darfur have greatly complicated mediation efforts in Sudan.
Today, a decade after their conflicts, both Sierra Leone and Liberia are at peace and their economies are growing rapidly. The trial in The Hague has helped them come to terms with one of the most blood-spattered episodes in African history, and the verdict represents another milestone on their journey to recovery. For Taylor, the past has finally caught up with him. He will likely spend the rest of his life in a British prison. It will be an ignominious last act for Taylor, but it will mean that, at last, Sierra Leone and Liberia can turn a page from his murderous era.