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Former Liberian Leader Convicted Of War Crimes


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. In the Netherlands today, a U.N.-backed international court convicted former Liberian President Charles Taylor of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The court found that he had provided sustained and significant support to rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone during that country's brutal 11-year civil war. The counts against Taylor included aiding and abetting murder, rape and enlistment of child soldiers.

From the Hague, NPR's Eric Westervelt has our story.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: The special court for Sierra Leone here faced a complex task because Liberian Charles Taylor never set foot in Sierra Leone during the atrocities next door. Prosecutors here mostly had to rely on circumstantial evidence to make their case that Taylor aided and abetted the rag-tag Revolutionary United Front, or RUF as it was known. Today, as Taylor stood in a sharp dark suit and reddish tie, presiding judge, Richard Lussick, read out the 11 counts the three judges ruled Taylor would be held responsible for.

JUDGE RICHARD LUSSICK: Count four, rape, a crime against humanity, punishable under Article 2G of the statute. Count five, sexual slavery, a crime against humanity...

WESTERVELT: The court found that Taylor backed the rebels often in exchanged for so-called Blood Diamonds mined by slave labor from rebel controlled areas. The judge said there was a constant flow of diamonds to Taylor, often in exchange for arms and ammunition. The RUF rebels carried out a reign of brutality, including mass killings, rapes, arson and amputations. They abducted children and used them for sex or forced them to fight.

A good number of the heavily-armed fighters were teenage soldiers notorious for being high on cocaine or methamphetamine and wearing weird wigs while killing. The judge today described how RUF fighters carved the group's initials into the foreheads of some prisoners, how women and kids were raped in public, and how one civilian was killed and disemboweled and then had his intestines stretched across the road to mark a rebel checkpoint.

David Crane is the founding chief prosecutor of the Sierra Leone war crimes court.

DAVID CRANE: Taylor is individually criminally responsible for the murder, rape, maiming and mutilation of over 1.2 million human beings, each of them dying horribly or being maimed or ruined for life. And so we must remember them as we're thinking about this important day because it is for and about them.

WESTERVELT: Crane wrote and signed the original indictment against Taylor. He calls today's 11-count conviction a positive step for the international justice system and the end of a story of atrocity beyond imagination for West Africa.

CRANE: I recall in my opening statement that the court was going to have to believe the unbelievable. There's nothing in any language that could describe the horror story that was Sierra Leone in the 1990s and early 2000.

WESTERVELT: Today's verdict makes Taylor the first former head of state to be successfully prosecuted by an international court since the Nuremburg trials of Nazis after World War II. Chief prosecutor Brenda Hollis called it a significant day for Taylor's victims who get a measure of justice.

BRENDA HOLLIS: I think it's also an important day because it shows that while high-level leaders will be held to account for their crimes, that accounting will be done in a fair proceeding before independent and impartial judges. And I think that's very important.

WESTERVELT: The judges said they did not find sufficient evidence Taylor ordered or planned specific attacks and abuses. After the ruling, Taylor's lead defense attorney, Courtenay Griffiths, vowed to appeal and he continued to paint the proceedings as a politically motivated neo-colonial conspiracy by Western nations. He claimed prosecutors paid for evidence.

COURTENAY GRIFFITHS: These convictions were obtained on tainted and corrupted evidence effectively bought by the prosecution.

WESTERVELT: Prosecutors dismissed those charges as absurd and pointed to the unanimous convictions by the three judges from Uganda, Ireland and Samoa. Taylor will be sentenced here next month. It's likely the 64-year-old will spend the rest of his life in prison. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, The Hague, The Netherlands. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.