Sierra Leoneans are relieved that former warlord and President of Liberia Charles Taylor has been convicted by the Special Court of Sierra Leone on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Taylor was convicted today by the UN-backed court in The Hague, capital of The Netherlands, of acts of terrorism, murder, violence to life, rape, sexual slavery, outrages to personal dignity, cruel treatment, the use of child soldiers, enslavement and pillage. He has denied the charges.
President of Liberia from 1997 to 2003, Taylor was accused of supporting the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) who killed, raped and injured tens of thousands of people during Sierra Leone’s 1991-2002 civil war.
Abioseh, 31, who was used as a sexual slave or “wife” of an RUF commander during the conflict, told IRIN from Makeni, central Sierra Leone, that “Taylor got what he was due - now we have seen justice and can move on.”
The verdict will not make her daily life or that of other survivors any easier. The father of one of her three children is an ex-RUF commander, and the associated stigma means she has never married and now struggles to provide for her children.
The RUF were known for their brutal violence, using machetes to cut off people’s limbs, training and coercing thousands of children to injure and kill civilians, and perpetrating widespread sexual violence and rape. An estimated 27,000 Sierra Leoneans were disabled or had one or more of their limbs amputated during the conflict.
The verdict “marks a watershed for efforts to hold the highest level leaders accountable for the greatest crimes, and for the victims of Sierra Leone’s brutal armed conflict”, Annie Gell, an attorney at the Human Rights Watch International Justice Programme, told IRIN.
This is the first time since the Nuremburg trials in 1947, after World War II, that a former head of state has faced a judgement in an international court, and should be a “wake-up call to leaders everywhere that those in power can be held to account for their crimes”, said Gell.
|I will reflect on the suffering we suffered today, but I want to forget - we have known all along Charles Taylor is guilty. Today is just another day where we must find food|
Many Sierra Leoneans see Taylor as accountable for atrocities committed during the civil war. His trial, held in The Hague due to stability concerns in Sierra Leone, has taken almost five years. So far eight more people associated with the three main warring factions have been tried and convicted by the court in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, and are serving sentences in Rwanda.
Mixed reactions in Liberia
Reactions to the verdict in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, have been mixed, with some Taylor supporters angry that he has been singled out.
Though only on trial for his actions relating to the violence in Sierra Leone, Taylor also played a key role in bringing neighbouring Liberia into the civil war in the late 1980s, but no such judicial process has taken place there. Instead, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was rolled out but its recommendations have not been implemented, partly because some of them are so controversial. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was one of 50 Liberians recommended for subjection to public sanctions - in her case for providing financial support to Charles Taylor.
While the survivors of the violence in Sierra Leone maybe pleased with the verdict, many also stress that practical assistance to help them rebuild their lives is just as important. Those who were sexually abused, wounded or injured during the war were promised reparations to help them move on, but many have yet to receive help, and the amounts are too small to make any significant difference, survivors have told IRIN.
James Kpomgbo, whose arm was cut off during the war, told a reporter in Freetown after the verdict had been announced: "I will reflect on the suffering we suffered today, but I want to forget - we have known all along Charles Taylor is guilty. Today is just another day where we must find food."