Former Liberian President Charles Taylor was today found guilty of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity by supporting brutal Sierra Leone rebels in return for blood diamonds.
International judges in The Hague were delivering verdicts against the 64-year-old warlord-turned-president.
Presiding Judge Richard Lussick said prosecutors have proved beyond reasonable doubt that Taylor is “criminally responsible” for aiding and abetting crimes by rebels in Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war.
Taylor had pleaded not guilty to 11 counts, including murder, rape, terror and conscripting child soldiers.
Lussick said Taylor provided arms, ammunition, communications equipment and planning to rebels responsible for countless atrocities in the 1991-2002 Sierra Leone civil war. Lussick called the support “sustained and significant”.
Taylor stood and showed no emotion as Lussick delivered 11 guilty verdicts. A sentence will be imposed later.
Taylor faces faces a maximum life sentence, to be served in Britain.
His trial ended a year ago and judges have been considering their verdicts ever since.
Taylor is the first African head of state convicted by an international court.
He may not be the last. Former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo is also jailed in The Hague awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed as he attempted to cling to power last year after losing a presidential election.
The same court also has indicted Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir on charges including genocide for his regime’s brutal crackdown on rebels in Darfur. Al-Bashir remains at large in his country, which does not recognise the ICC.
The verdicts are a watershed moment for international justice. The only other head of state convicted by an international tribunal was Karl Doenitz, a naval officer who briefly led Germany after Adolf Hitler’s suicide, and who faced justice at Nuremberg.
Ex-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was tried at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal for fomenting the Balkan wars of the 1990s, but he suffered a fatal heart attack in his cell before the case reached a conclusion. Prosecutors at the same court are close to wrapping up their case against former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, accused of masterminding atrocities including genocide during Bosnia’s 1992-95 war.
The ICC last year indicted Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi with crimes against humanity as he resorted to murdering and persecuting civilians to put down protests against his regime, but he was captured and killed by rebel fighters before he could face a court of law.
Lussick scheduled a sentencing hearing for May 16 and said sentence would be passed two weeks later.
Human rights activists hailed the convictions as a watershed moment in the fight against impunity for national leaders responsible for atrocities.
“Taylor’s conviction sends a powerful message that even those in the highest level positions can be held to account for grave crimes,” said Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch.
“Not since Nuremberg has an international or hybrid war crimes court issued a judgment against a current or former head of state. This is a victory for Sierra Leonean victims, and all those seeking justice when the worst abuses are committed.”
While judges convicted him of aiding and abetting atrocities by rebels, they cleared him of direct command responsibility, saying he had no direct control over the rebels he supported.