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16 May 2012 05:13
Former Liberian president Charles Taylor waits for the start of the sentencing hearing in Leidschendam, near The Hague. (AP)
Taylor (64) was found guilty by the UN-backed court last month of aiding and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone.
“Witnesses were paid, coerced and in many cases threatened with prosecution if they did not give statements,” the former Liberian president told the Special Court for Sierra Leone ahead of his sentencing on May 30.
Dressed in a light grey suit, white shirt and blue tie, Taylor spoke for 30 minutes from the witness box – his last chance to state his case before judges pronounce a sentence.
Taylor insisted that he “pushed hard for peace” in the neighbouring country. “I was convinced that unless peace came to Sierra Leone, Liberia could not go forward.”
And he expressed “my sadness and deepest sympathies at the crimes suffered by victims and their families in Sierra Leone”.
Once one of West Africa’s most powerful men, Taylor was found guilty last month of arming and aiding rebels who killed and mutilated thousands in Sierra Leone during a decade-long civil war that killed 120 000 people.
‘Blood diamonds’In return, rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) paid Taylor in so-called “blood diamonds” mined by slave labour.
In a landmark first judgment against a former head of state since the Nazi trials at Nuremberg in 1946, Taylor was convicted on all 11 counts against him, including acts of terrorism, murder and rape committed by the RUF.
The court’s chief prosecutor Brenda Hollis recommended an 80-year jail sentence.
“Mr Taylor’s critical role in the entire campaign of terror deserves an adequate condemnation,” Hollis told the court Wednesday.
“Mr Taylor was the root that aided, abetted and maintained the alliance: without him, the rebel movement would have died sooner,” she added.
She said time Taylor had spent behind bars since his arrest in March 2006 and his transfer to The Hague three months later, should be deducted from his sentence, but not the time he spent under house arrest in Nigeria.
Civil warTaylor left Liberia in August 2003, to end that country’s civil war,, headed into exile in Nigeria where he lived until his arrest in March 2006 as he tried to flee.
Taylor’s lawyers said the prosecution’s demand was “excessive” and that their client should not be made to carry the blame alone for what happened in Sierra Leone’s war, which ended in 2001.
“Peace would not have come to Sierra Leone but for the efforts of Charles Taylor,” his lawyer Courtenay Griffiths told the hearing in leafy Leidschendam, just outside The Hague.
The trial heard that children under the age of 15 were abducted and conscripted during the conflict, and had the letters “RUF” carved into their foreheads and backs to deter escape.
The RUF rebels were notorious for hacking off the hands and legs of civilians.
The trial, which saw supermodel Naomi Campbell testify she had received “dirty” diamonds at a charity ball hosted by former South African president Nelson Mandela in 1997, lasted nearly four years, until March 2011.
Substantial influenceHanding down the verdict last month, Judge Richard Lussick stressed that although Taylor had substantial influence over the RUF, including its feared leader Foday Sankoh, “it fell short of command and control” of rebel forces.
Sankoh died in 2003 before he could face trial.
Taylor, Liberia’s president from 1997 to 2003, had dismissed the charges as “lies” and claimed to be the victim of a plot by “powerful countries.”
Authorities in Nigeria arrested Taylor in March 2006 as he tried to flee from exile after being forced to quit Liberia three years earlier, ending that country’s own civil war.
He was transferred to The Hague in 2006 amid security fears should he go on trial in the Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown.
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