Charles Taylor only smiled once during the court hearing in the Hague, before he was found guilty of aiding and abetting war crimes, during the bloody civil war in Sierre Leone.
Looking up, the warlord, who became Liberia's president before he was finally convicted on Thursday for helping bring about years of terror in neighboring Sierra Leone, beamed when he caught the eye of his daughter.
Sharon, or “Lady Ghankay” as she is also called, had followed the proceedings from the public gallery, sitting at the edge of her seat. Separated from her father by a wall of transparent glass, she watched as her father faced justice, somber and pale, his head slightly bowed, burgundy tie limply hanging from his neck, and three deep horizontal lines crossing his forehead.
At the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Justice Richard Lussick read the verdict to about 80 spellbound listeners. During a four-year trial prosecutors at the United Nations-backed tribunal in The Hague have documented the terror committed by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), which Taylor supported.
Between 1996 and 2002, RUF rebels rampaged Sierre Leone, killing, maiming, and raping civilians. The horror stories are well known: limbs were amputated, lips were cut off, pregnant women were cut open, their fetuses torn from their wombs. Children were kidnapped and drugged, employed as child soldiers or mine guards, and forced to commit atrocities themselves.
Brenda Hollis, the chief prosecutor, called the judgment against Taylor “historic,” saying it reinforced “a new reality: that heads of state will be held to account for war crimes and other international crimes.”
Taylor’s lawyer, Courtenay Griffiths, meanwhile argued that by finding against the leader of a “small, weak, poor country” in Africa, the international criminal justice system had “set “an unwelcome precedent.” Charles Taylor, Griffiths said, had not been a warmonger but a peacemaker, who had attempted to protect the integrity of Liberia’s borders.
The judges, though, found that while Taylor had publicly promoted peace as a standing head of state of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), he had undermined that same peace process by providing arms and ammunition to the RUF and fuelling hostilities in Sierra Leone.
When asked about her father’s involvement in Sierra Leone’s civil war, Sharon Taylor defended her dad. “Being the leader of a nation…that comes with huge responsibility, and of course we never have control over our subordinates,” she said. “When you’re in such a position, it’s quite vulnerable.”
The special tribunal found Taylor guilty on 11 counts, saying he provided sustained support for the rebels as they committed atrocities in the neighboring country. The court also found that Taylor participated in the planning of attacks, including one on the Sierra Leone capital, Freetown.
“I’m obviously saddened," said Sharon Taylor in response to the verdict. But, she added, "our family’s faith in the Almighty is strong.” She also described Charles Taylor as dedicated to his family and an “amazing father." “My dad is awesome. He’s fun. He’s vibrant.”
To illustrate his involvement with his children, Sharon recalled a trip she took with Taylor to Ethiopia when she was a gawky teenager. Her father, she said, listened to the music she liked, including her favorite song by slain rapper Tupac Shakur, “The Rose that Grew from Concrete.”
When Sharon graduated from a high school in Geneva, Switzerland, he reveled in her success, she recalled. “My dad is my best friend. There’s nothing that I can hide from him. There’s nothing that I do hide from him. Every single one of us, he’s involved in our lives in every way, shape and form.”
During the trial, she visited her father and tried to take his mind off the proceedings. “We would just talk about things that were fun,” she said. “I would never want to focus on the trial with him because it was depressing.”
To the many who had waited so long for justice, the verdict was anything but.
A. Fasu Kanneh, a Liberian who now lives in The Hague, remembered his own encounters with Taylor during the 1980s, when Taylor held the job as head of the General Services Agency (GSA), Liberia’s chief procurement agency. “Taylor became something like a president,” driving around Monrovia with a motorcade and attendant bodyguard, Fasu recalled.
“There are two things that Taylor loves: power and money,” said Fasu. But “if you don’t know how to exercise that particular power, you might misuse it, and I think that’s what happened to Taylor…Working at GSA showed Taylor that he could be president of Liberia one day.”
Investigators believe Taylor siphoned hundreds of millions of dollars out of Liberia —and engaged in the blood diamond trade.
When asked about Taylor today, Fasu responded: “I personally feel that Taylor should remain in prison for the rest of his life because I saw the destruction of a city [Monrovia] that was vibrant…and the kids, these little kids didn’t have any future...that is painful.”