Many years ago a BBC reporter suggested to the then Liberian president Charles Taylor that some people thought him little better than a murderer. Taylor responded: “Jesus Christ was accused of being a murderer in his time”.
The now ex-president of Liberia was last week sentenced to 50 years in prison for aiding and abetting the civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone during the 1990s. He was found guilty of 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity including murder, rape, sexual slavery and conscription of child soldiers.
While Taylor never set foot in Sierra Leone, he sponsored the RUF rebels in order to destabilise the country and reap the benefits of the diamond mining industry.
The Revolutionary United Front were a rebel group who started a guerrilla campaign against the Sierra Leonean government in the early nineties due to corruption and mismanagement of the diamond sector but when the military successfully attempted a coup d’état it triggered a decade long civil war. During the trial of Charles Taylor the prosecution claimed that he saw a chance to profit from the war and exchanged guns for ‘blood’ diamonds which he could then sell on to finance his own campaigns. These guns and other ammunition further fueled the war and the RUF’s grip on the diamond mines.
During the latter half of the nineties the RUF started their most gruesome atrocities against the population of Sierra Leone. They committed widespread rape and murder and used machetes and axes to hack off the hands, arms and legs of men, women and children to drive fear into their opponents during elections. Thousands of boys and girls were abducted and forced to serve as soldiers or as prostitutes, were kept on drugs and often forced to murder their own parents.
But the RUF didn’t stop there.
The Guardian reported that amongst the atrocities, victims were beheaded and their ‘heads were often displayed at checkpoints. On one occasion a man was killed, publicly disembowelled and his intestines stretched across a road to form another checkpoint. “The purpose,” Judge Richard Lussick said, “was to instill terror”.’
RUF soldiers were known to have cut open pregnant women to settle bets over the sex of their unborn children. During Taylor’s trial Judge Richard Lussick read a statement from a prosecution witnesses. “Witness TF1064 was forced to carry a bag containing human heads,” Lussick said. “On the way, the rebels ordered her to laugh as she carried the bags dripping with blood. The bag was emptied, and she saw the heads of her children.”
The war in Sierra Leone, depicted in the 2006 film Blood Diamond starring Leonardo DiCaprio, lasted for over ten years and left 50,000 people dead and over half of the country’s 4,500,000 population displaced.
There were growing fears that holding Taylor’s trial in Sierra Leone could cause more instability in the country and therefore the UN-backed court in The Hague, The Netherlands, agreed to host the trial as long as he was imprisoned in another country if convicted.
The Bristish government stepped forward and offered to house Taylor in a British jail if he was found guilty and therefore Taylor will serve out his sentence in one of the UK’s high security prisons.
Taylor is the first former head of state to be convicted by an international war crimes court since Admiral Karl Donitz, Hitler’s successor, was jailed at the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War.
So many former heads of state have escaped accountability for their roles in genocide and crimes against humanity. Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge party who were responsible for the deaths of over a quarter of the population of Cambodia, died before he came to trial. Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav president, who left a legacy of over 200,000 dead and half of the 4,000,000 population homeless during the Bosnian War, died of a heart attack in his cell while standing trial at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
“It is really significant that Taylor’s status as a former head of state was taken as an aggravating factor as far as his sentence was concerned,” said Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner of Human Rights Watch. “That is a very important precedent and I hope that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir take note.”
Judge Lussik said; “As president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces of Liberia, Mr Taylor used his unique position to aid and abet the commission of crimes in Sierra Leone, rather than using his power to promote peace and stability.”
Today Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world but there are several charities making a difference. Liverpool and Wales footballer Craig Bellamy started The Craig Bellamy Foundation after visiting the country in 2007.
He invested £1.2m of his own money to help build a not-for-profit football academy in the Kono region of the country. Bellamy and Unicef have also built a national league in a country where the existing top-flight league has been suspended due to lack of funds. He hopes football will inspire positive change amongst the children.
Another charity working in Sierra Leone is Street Child of Sierra Leone. It was founded in 2008 by Tom Dannatt to reduce the number of children living on the streets by putting them in long-term education and reuniting them with their families or placing them in alternative loving environments. Some charities have been criticised in the past for wasting of money on running costs, but Street Child ensures that 90% of all donations go directly to the charity’s work in Sierra Leone.