JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — On Thursday, Charles Taylor will hear the verdict in his “blood diamonds” trial at a special court in The Hague.
The warlord who became Liberia’s president stands accused of trading diamonds from Sierra Leone for weapons he channeled to rebels in that country’s civil war, which from 1991 to 2002 was one of Africa’s bloodiest conflicts.
He has pleaded not guilty to 11 charges that include murder, rape, enslavement, mutilation, pillaging and conscripting child soldiers. He could be found guilty on all, some or none of the charges.
Guilty or not, it will be the first verdict issued against a former head of state, in this type of court, on serious violations of international law. But it has been slow in coming. Many Liberians question why no similar trial has taken place to deal with crimes that occurred in their own country.
Taylor was first indicted on war crimes in 2003. The trial lasted three and a half years, and judges at the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone have taken 13 months to reach a verdict.
The verdict “certainly will send a message that even those at the highest echelons of power can be held to account,” said Elise Keppler, senior counsel with Human Rights Watch’s international justice program.
“Sierra Leone victims suffered terribly during the conflict, and this verdict will give a measure of redress to them,” Keppler added.
There has been a “justice vacuum in Liberia,” she said, and Sierra Leone’s special court could serve as a model for pursuing justice in that country.
If guilty, Taylor would serve his time in a United Kingdom prison. The Dutch government agreed to host his trial at The Hague as long as any jail term was served in another country.
If found not guilty, “there is no question that it would be a huge disappointment to the many victims, but I don’t think it detracts from the signal that those in power can be held to account,” Keppler said.
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The Special Court for Sierra Leone was set up in 2002, at the end of the civil war in which some 50,000 people were killed and thousands more badly mutilated, with limbs hacked off.
Thirteen people were originally indicted, but three suspects died before their trials, and one remains missing.
The Taylor trial is a landmark case in that it is the first time since the Nuremberg trials for an ex-president to receive a verdict on charges of serious crimes of international law.
Former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo is in jail awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court, and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has been indicted by the ICC on charges of genocide in Darfur.
Ex-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic died before his war crimes case had reached a conclusion.
But Taylor’s trial at The Hague continued for so long that media attention waned, except for a significant spike in interest when feisty supermodel Naomi Campbell testified in 2010.
Campbell told the court she had received a gift of “dirty-looking” raw diamonds from unknown men, assumed to have been sent by Taylor, after a 1997 celebrity dinner hosted by Nelson Mandela in South Africa. The defense claimed this was only speculation.
John Jukon, chairman of the Liberia Non-Government Organizations Network, noted that some critics argue the money spent on Taylor’s trial could have been used to help Sierra Leone’s poor.
After the verdict, a 15-day survey will measure the overall impact of the special court on Sierra Leone and Liberia.
“We want to assess the legacy of the court, and identify any problems,” Jukon said.
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The Open Society Justice Initiative said it will summarize Thursday’s verdict in simple language for communities in the two West African countries, and hold local meetings and media panels to discuss the findings.
The organization, backed by billionaire George Soros, said this “will help ensure that justice is not only done, but that it is also seen to be done.”
Ian Smillie, a leading conflict diamonds expert who was called as a prosecution witness during Taylor’s trial, highlighted the devastation caused by trade in “blood diamonds.”
“The unregulated trade in diamonds through the 1990s led to the deaths from direct and indirect causes of millions of people,” he told GlobalPost during the trial.
“The carnage was enormous and the effects will last for a long time,” said Smillie. “Diamonds didn’t cause the wars, but they fueled them.”
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