FREETOWN, SIERRA LEONE — Saffa Momoh Lahai was two years old when his father was killed by rebels in a Sierra Leone village near the border of Liberia.
"I never even saw a photograph of him," said the 23-year-old college student.
Lahai was one of the hundred of onlookers, officials and tribal leaders who descended on the Special Court for Sierra Leone in Freetown last month to hear the verdict in the Charles Taylor war crimes trial at The Hague. She held a poster that read, "Justice will always prevail over injustice and evil."
Former Liberian president Charles Taylor was convicted on 11 counts of aiding and abetting the civil war in Sierra Leone, which lasted nearly a decade. He will be sentenced on May 30. Although the war ended 10 years ago, this country still wears visible scars of the societal, operational and psychological destruction inflicted during that time.
The trial was moved to The Hague because of concerns over instability in Liberia if Taylor was present during a trial in neighboring Sierra Leone. Sierra Leoneans welcomed Taylor's guilty verdict, in contrast to Liberia, where the former president still has some supporters.
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The Taylor verdict was broadcast in Freetown by video feed from the Special Court in The Hague. For those gathered at the Special Court under a heavy military presence, there were no easily audible cheers or jeers, but nods of agreement as the Chief Justice read out specific crimes that Taylor was found knowledgeable of and indirectly responsible for. As he sat in the Netherlands courtroom, Taylor looked stoic as he took notes while listening to the judgments being read against him.
For those like Lahai, the ruling offers a way to publicly close the book on a dark chapter in his life and the lives of countless others.
The verdict seemed to offer a glimpse of justice and fairness to citizens of country where corruption still persists, and the gap between the haves and the have-nots often seems like an ever-expanding balloon.
"Today is a very good day. It shows that no one is above the law," said Alieu Ibrahim Kanu, Sierra Leone's former ambassador to the United Nations, who was at the Special Court for the verdict. "If you commit crimes that prick the conscience of the international community you will be caught."
Although most people seemed to carry on with their daily routines, radios were tuned to live coverage and commentary from the BBC. A driver waiting in his SUV had the commentary blaring. He said the court "did the right thing" in finding Taylor guilty of the destruction heaped upon the country during the war.
The trial began in 2008 but attracted little overt attention in Freetown until 2010 when Taylor and supermodel Naomi Campbell took the stand. At that point, street vendors began to hawk DVDs of the trial proceedings.
Abdulai Bayraytay, a spokesperson for the government read, a statement to local journalists hours after the verdict.
"As a government, we welcome the verdict of finding Charles Taylor guilty for the atrocities he's released on us as a result of our war," Bayraytay said. "Today we wish this verdict will contribute immensely to the healing process of the victims."
Leon Jenkins Johnston, a local attorney who watched the verdict from inside the Special Court, called the verdict a "well-reasoned" judgment, with the court fully substantiating its decision.
Taylor was found innocent on some of the charges, such as ones alleging he had direct control over leading rebel forces. Johnston characterized those as key challenges the prosecution faced. He called the case a unique one.
Taylor also was found guilty of aiding and abetting crimes against women. Fatmata Sannoh, a representative of the district council in Kailahun, an eastern region of the country, was among dozens invited to the court to see the verdict being read. She said she was devastated by gender-based violence during the war.
"I'm happy that gender-based crimes have come into the international justice system," added Marian Samu, another woman at the court. Many people are still trying to rebuild their lives after losing everything in the war, but the verdict will let those people know that "justice was done," said Paramount Chief Aiah M. Ngekia of Kono, who was also on hand. "People are still living."
There had been some fear that a not-guilty verdict would bring violence back to Sierra Leone, as Taylor — who has maintained his innocence — had vowed to return to the region.
However, for Santigi Kargbo, a waiter at a restaurant in the western part of Freetown, there was never any doubt about the ruling.
"What I witnessed was really bad," he said. "It was the right decision. I never thought he would be found not guilty."
Sierra Leone marked its 51st anniversary of independence from British rule the day after Taylor's verdict. Some said that the verdict made the celebrations even more special.
"Peace has been restored in Sierra Leone," said Aithui Johnson, who listened to the verdict with friends over the radio in the Western area of Freetown. "We don't want to hear anything else about war."
Kimberly S. Johnson is an American journalist in Sierra Leone. She serves as senior reporter for West and Central Africa at mergermarket, part of the FT Group. Her work has also appeared in Africa Investor Magazine and GlobalPost.
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