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Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia, guilty of war crimes

Taylor conviction is 1st since WWII; linked to horrors in Sierra Leone

Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images

People in Freetown, Sierre Leone, watched the verdict given Thursday for Liberia’s former leader Charles Taylor in The Hague.

THE HAGUE - Charles G. Taylor, the former president of Liberia and once a powerful warlord, was convicted by an international tribunal Thursday of arming, supporting, and guiding a brutal rebel movement that committed mass atrocities in Sierra Leone during its civil war in the 1990s. He is the first head of state to be convicted by an international court since the Nuremberg trials after World War II.

After 13 months of deliberation, a panel of three judges from Ireland, Samoa, and Uganda found Taylor guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including murder, rape, slavery, and the use of child soldiers. But the judges said the prosecution failed to prove that Taylor directly commanded the rebels responsible.

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The conflict in Sierra Leone became notorious for its gruesome tactics, including the calculated mutilation of thousands of civilians, the widespread use of drugged child soldiers, and the mining of diamonds to pay for guns and ammunition. A new, sinister rebel vocabulary pointed to the horrors: applying “a smile’’ meant cutting off the upper and lower lips of a victim; giving “long sleeves’’ meant hacking off the hands; and giving “short sleeves’’ meant cutting the arm above the elbow.

Ten years after the war ended, Sierra Leone is still struggling to rebuild. An estimated 50,000 people died, while countless others fled the country or took refuge in camps.

Prosecutors said Taylor’s part in the devastation was motivated not by ideology, but by a quest for power and money - “pure avarice,’’ in the words of David M. Crane, the US prosecutor who indicted him in 2003. Rebels supplied Taylor with “a continuous supply’’ of diamonds, often in exchange for arms and ammunition, the court found, allowing him to send what prosecutors said amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars to offshore companies.

Yet investigators never unraveled the web hiding this presumed fortune and Taylor pleaded penury, leaving the court to foot the bill for a defense that cost $100,000 per month in lawyers, staff, and rent.

Still, the trial has brought “a sense of relief,’’ said Ibrahim Tommy, who leads the Center for Accountability and Rule of Law, a rights group in Freetown. “I’m not sure it will bring closure to the victims,’’ he said, but the trial was “a genuine effort to ensure accountability for the crimes in Sierra Leone.’’

The tribunal, called the Special Court for Sierra Leone, has already sentenced eight other leading members from different forces and rebel groups. Taylor, who has maintained his innocence, will be sentenced in the coming weeks. There is no death penalty in international criminal law and any jail term would be served in a British prison.

The fighting for control over one of the world’s poorest regions also involved Liberia, where many more died, and threatened to spill over into neighboring Guinea and Ivory Coast. But only crimes in Sierra Leone between 1996 and 2002 are within the court’s mandate, and Taylor is the special court’s last defendant. His trial was moved here, to The Hague and a second court nearby, for fear of causing unrest in the region where he still has followers.

Not since Karl Doenitz, the German admiral who briefly succeeded Hitler upon his death, was tried and sentenced by the International Military Tribunal has a head of state been convicted by an international court.

Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Serbia, died in his cell before his war crimes trial ended. Jean Kambanda, the first person sentenced for the crime of genocide, received a life sentence for his role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, but he was a former prime minister, not the head of state. The former president of Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, has been charged with crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, but his trial has not yet begun.

During Taylor’s lengthy trial, which began in 2006, the judges heard testimony from 115 witnesses.

To buttress their case, prosecutors used radio and telephone intercepts and brought in radio operators who had connected Taylor’s mansion in Monrovia to the rebels in Sierra Leone.

Taylor has ties to the Boston area. He arrived on a student visa in 1972 and studied economics at Chamberlayne Junior College in Newton and Bentley College in Waltham. He became a leading Liberian dissident, and in 1977 he returned to Liberia, joining Samuel Doe’s government after a coup in 1980.

After a falling out with Doe, Taylor was accused of embezzling $1 million from the government and fled back to Boston. He was arrested in Somerville in 1984 but escaped from a Plymouth jail in 1985.

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