by Jesse Wieten
LEIDSCHENDAM, The Netherlands, Sep. 26 (Xinhua) -- Charles Taylor was sentenced to 50 years imprisonment on Thursday by the appeals chamber of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) in Leidschendam. Experts shared their different opinions on the significance of this ruling for international law with Xinhua.
Taylor was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, torture and the use of child soldiers during the Sierra Leone Civil War from 1991 to 2002. In addition, he was convicted of aiding and abetting terrorism by supplying weapons to the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in exchange for diamonds.
The defense was disappointed that the appeals chamber of the SCSL did not follow the verdict of the appeals chamber of another tribunal. In February this year the International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) reversed a chamber's conviction of General Momcilo Perisic, former commander of the Yugoslav army during the Bosnian war. In this decision, the appeals chamber revisited the elements for aiding and abetting, finding that an aider or abettor must specifically direct his conduct to the crime committed by the perpetrator.
The appeal judges in the Taylor case rejected an attempt by Taylor's lawyers to use this ruling. "The appeal chamber is not persuaded that there are cogent reasons to depart from the trial chamber findings," judge George Gelaga-King said. "The appeal chamber concludes that specific direction is not needed."
"We were optimistic after the jurisprudence of the ICTY", said Taylor's lawyer Morris Anyah to Xinhua. "The Special Court rejected that aiding and abetting requires specific direction. The jurisprudence on aiding and abetting now is in disarray. Today's decision had to deal with whether an aider and abettor should be treated differently than the principle perpetrator. It's a principle of law, common sense that the aider and abettor should get a lesser sentence."
"As a consequence unlawful and lawful actions now are difficult to predict," Anyah added. "It's a dangerous precedent leading to entirely chaotic international jurisprudence."
Prosecutor Brenda Hollis of the Special Court for Sierra Leone has a different opinion. "The Perisic case is the aberration, the exception," she told Xinhua. "Many people believe it was wrong. Before that judgment the law of the ICTY and ICTR for Rwanda was very different. Today's verdict is in accordance with all the other jurisprudence at the two tribunals. Today's judgment will give room for reflection at the ICTY and even at the ICC of what really are the elements of aiding and abetting."
"Having judges with different opinions is not unusual in national courts either," she added. "The difference is international courts don't have a higher court to rule."
Thijs Bouwknegt, a Dutch legal historian, states the differences between the Perisic and the Taylor verdict do mean a legal conflict. "But that is not so strange with two different tribunals," he said to Xinhua.
"Nevertheless, it was a good day for international law," prosecutor Hollis continued. "It would be wrong to call today a day of celebration, but it rather is a day of reflection. It shows no person, how powerful he might be, is above the law."
Alpha Sesay, a legal officer specialized in international justice for the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), welcomed the verdict. "For me the evidence was pretty clear," he said to Xinhua. "It really is a confirmation of what the trial chamber said. The fact that a powerful person like Taylor had to stand in front of a civilian trial sends a message to the world. It is a victory for international justice, for accountability and for the numerous victims in Sierra Leone."
One of this victims is Memunatu Kamara, a 28-year-old woman from Sierra Leone. She was present in Leidschendam to see Taylor get convicted. "In 1999 during a rebel invasion my left hand was cut off very brutally," she told Xinhua. "At that time I was only 15. The man who is responsible for these acts is now convicted. I came here on behalf of the victims. We are still suffering in Freetown. We are often handicapped, poor and need compensation. The government and this special court should come together and give us long-time compensation."
Legal historian Bouwknegt followed the final judgment in Leidschendam with special interest. "This verdict creates a precedent for other prosecutions at different international tribunals, among which the ICC, with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta's to start in November 2013," he told Xinhua.
"The judges, defense, prosecutors will look at this verdict. It will be very important. It is the first, in appeal, against a former head of state. International law does not look for little war lords, but only for the big fishes, ministers and presidents. They are very hard to prosecute, because they don't have blood on their hands themselves. They could only be responsible by not doing anything or through indirect ways, like supplying weapons or advice. Now we have a verdict which says we can effectively prosecute and convict leaders. That is a milestone." He added.