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Charles Taylor convicted of aiding war crimes

After a decade, international justice finally catches up with one of Africa's most brutal warlords

By Daniel Howden

Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia, has been convicted of war crimes at The Hague, the first time a former or current head of state has been found guilty by an international tribunal since the Nuremberg trials.

After five years of hearings at a cost of $250m, the 64-year-old was found guilty on 11 counts of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity relating to his role in the bloody civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

However, judges at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, found the prosecution had failed to prove that the Liberian leader had ordered the welter of atrocities.

"The trial chamber finds the accused cannot be held responsible for ordering the crimes... Having already found the accused guilty of aiding and abetting, [the court] does not find the accused also instigated these crimes," said presiding judge Richard Lussick.

Taylor, a charismatic politician and guerrilla leader who led a bush war to take power in his native Liberia in the 1990s, had sought to build his defence on claims that he was a regional peacemaker who had "never set foot" in Sierra Leone. But the prosecution was able to prove that while he publicly preached peace, privately he was on a satellite phone conniving with leaders of the RUF rebel movement in Sierra Leone, who were waging a barbaric campaign of rape, murder and pillage that left 50,000 people dead.

More than 100 witnesses and 50,000 pages of testimony, heard in an air-conditioned courtroom in The Hague, brought to life a West African war in which children had been drugged and sent into battle wearing fright wigs; where amputating people's hands or arms was known by the slang of "short sleeves or long sleeves"; and hundreds of girls were taken as sex slaves.

In return for his assistance, Taylor – who by 1997 had been elected President of Liberia – received a steady stream of what came to be known as blood diamonds.

Judge Lussick said that while "the accused was publicly promoting peace", he was "privately providing arms to the RUF".

"There was a constant flow... of diamonds from Sierra Leone to the accused, often in exchange for arms and ammunition," he said.

Taylor's trial attracted overwhelming international attention when the model Naomi Campbell was compelled to testify over allegations that she had received rough diamonds from Taylor after the pair attended a charity dinner hosted by Nelson Mandela in 1997. The model told the court that while she did receive the stones, she could not say who had given them to her.

The verdict was broadly welcomed by human rights groups, who hailed it as a landmark for international justice. Patrick Alley, a director of the resource watchdog Global Witness, said: "This will act as a deterrent to those in high office. Those who trade in conflict diamonds no longer enjoy impunity."

Sentencing is expected next month, and Taylor – who once escaped from a US prison cell using bed sheets – could end up serving his sentence in a British jail amid concerns that no West African prison is secure enough.

During his trial Taylor claimed that Washington aided him in his prison escape in the US, where he was being held pending extradition to Liberia on embezzlement charges.

Returning to West Africa, he got money and arms and went into the bush to lead a rebellion against President Samuel Doe, a brutal and illiterate army sergeant who had seized power in a coup.

Although he also took charge of the country by force, Taylor was undeniably popular and retains strong affection among some Liberians even today.

There is frustration in Liberia that the country has not had its own special tribunal and several of the key figures from the war era are now in government. This has increased the perception that Taylor has been unfairly singled out.

"He was the most charismatic and popular politician that Liberia has seen," said Colin Waugh, author of Charles Taylor and Liberia. "He deserves to go to prison for the crimes he has committed but that doesn't change the fact that this is selective justice."

Charles Taylor: His life and times

28 January 1948 Charles Taylor is born in Liberia into an elite family descended from freed American slaves.

1980 After studying in the US, Taylor returns to Liberia to take a government finance job, but flees in 1983 after President Samuel Doe accuses him of embezzling nearly $1m. He is later detained in the US on a Liberian arrest warrant.

1985 Taylor escapes from the Massachusetts prison, with some speculating that his jailbreak was staged so he could return to Liberia with covert US support and challenge Doe's leadership.

1989 Back in Liberia, he launches an armed rebellion under the banner of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), sparking a conflict that will eventually leave 200,000 people dead.

1990 Doe is killed by a splinter group of the NPFL, his brutal torture and execution at the hands of beer-swigging rebels captured on camera.

1991 The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels begin an uprising in neighbouring Sierra Leone. The war rages on until 2002, with Taylor backing rebels who are accused of widespread atrocities, including hacking the limbs off children.

July 1997 After several failed peace deals and regional intervention, elections are finally held in Liberia and Taylor is elected President.

1999 Britain and the US threaten to suspend aid to Liberia because of Taylor's support for the RUF rebels in Sierra Leone, which expands his influence and gives him access to the country's lucrative diamond mines.

March 2003 Special Court for Sierra Leone indicts Taylor on charges including murder, rape, sexual slavery, conscripting child soldiers and terrorising civilians during Sierra Leone's civil war. Another armed rebellion also threatens his rule in Liberia.

August 2003 Taylor resigns and heads into exile in Nigeria. After appeals are turned down, he goes into hiding, and is finally taken into custody in March 2006 as he tries to cross into Cameroon. He is transferred to Sierra Leone.

June 2006 Amid fears a trial in Sierra Leone could spark regional unrest, Taylor is transferred to a UN detention block in The Hague. His trial finally begins a year later.

April 2012 Taylor is found guilty of aiding and abetting war crimes during the Sierra Leone civil war. He will be sentenced in May.

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