Convicted war criminal Charles Taylor has accused the international community of selectively targeting African heads of state with prosecutions but ignoring offences committed by United States forces in Iraq.
In his final address this week before sentencing by a United Nations-backed tribunal in The Hague, the 64-year-old former Liberian president denied encouraging human rights abuses during the long-running civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone, insisting he had been trying to stabilise the region.
The court should deliver its sentence in a spirit of “reconciliation, not retribution”, said Taylor, who offered no admission of wrongdoing.
“I express my sadness and sympathy for crimes suffered by individuals and families in Sierra Leone. What I did to bring peace to Sierra Leone was done with honour. I was convinced that unless there was peace in Sierra Leone, Liberia would not be able to move forward. I pushed the peace process hard, contrary to how I have been portrayed in this court.”
In his 30-minute statement, the one-time accountant and Libyan-trained guerrilla leader disputed the accuracy of evidence presented during his four-year-long trial. “Witnesses were paid, coerced and in many cases threatened with prosecution if they did not give statements,” Taylor told the court. “Families were rewarded with thousands of dollars to cover the costs of children’s school fees, transportation, food, clothing, medical bills and given cash allowances for protected and non-protected witnesses in a country where income is less than a dollar a day.”
He repeatedly blamed his predicament on the US, comparing what he had been convicted of with offences he said American forces carried out during the Iraq war. Other African leaders could be subjected to similar unjust fates. “I never stood a chance,” he said. “Only time will tell how many other African heads of state will be destroyed.”
Taylor was found guilty last month of 11 counts of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity by supporting rebels in Sierra Leone between 1996 and 2002 in return for conflict diamonds. Offences of which he was found guilty included murder, rape, sexual slavery, recruiting child soldiers, enforced amputations and pillage.
He will be sentenced by the court on May 30. It cannot impose capital punishment or life sentences, but the prosecution has called for an 80-year prison term. Any sentence is likely to be served in the United Kingdom, which has offered to accommodate Taylor. His defence lawyers said that exiling him to Britain’s jails – where a Serbian war crimes convict was attacked in his cell two years ago – would leave him “culturally isolated” and constitute a “punishment within a punishment”.
The court’s chief prosecutor, Brenda Hollis, a former US military prosecutor, has dismissed allegations that witnesses had been paid, saying they had only received the standard entitlement to court expenses. – © Guardian News & Media 2012