Taylor 'sympathy' for Sierra Leone victims

Former Liberian leader says prosecution paid witnesses and seeks leniency in statement before sentencing for war crimes.

    Taylor 'sympathy' for Sierra Leone victims
    Taylor, was convicted last month of 11 counts of war crimes including murder, rape and conscripting child soldiers [AFP]

    Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president found guilty of perpetrating war crimes in neighbouring Sierra Leone, has accused prosecutors of paying and intimidating witnesses as a UN court heard arguments before his sentence hearing in two weeks.

    "Witnesses were paid, coerced and in many cases threatened with prosecution if they did not give statements," Taylor told the special court at The Hague for war crimes committed during Sierra Leone's civil war.

    "I express my sadness and sympathy for crimes suffered by individuals and families in Sierra Leone," said Taylor, speaking before his scheduled sentencing on May 30.

    "I express my sadness and sympathy for crimes suffered by individuals and families in Sierra Leone."

    -Charles Taylor, former Liberia president

    Seeking leniency, Taylor, who was convicted last month of 11 counts of war crimes including murder, rape and conscripting child soldiers, said he did not condone impunity in any form.

    Judges at the UN-backed court said his aid was essential in helping rebels across the border in Sierra Leone continue their bloody rampage during the West African nation's decade-long civil war, which ended in 2002 with more than 50,000 dead.

    It was the first time a former head of state had been convicted of war crimes since the aftermath of World War II.

    The former president told judges that he sympathised with victims of the war, but stopped short of apologising or expressing remorse.

    He insisted his actions had actually been done to help stabilise the region and claimed he never knowingly assisted in the commission of crimes.

    "What I did...was done with honor,'' he said. "I was convinced that unless there was peace in Sierra Leone, Liberia would not be able to move forward."

    'No leniency'

    Prosecutors are demanding an 80-year sentence, while Taylor's lawyer Courtenay Griffiths noted Taylor's conviction was for enabling, rather than ordering war crimes, and that the 64-year-old deserved a sentence that gave him hope of release.

    Judges found Taylor helped the rebels obtain weapons, knowing they would likely be used to commit terrible crimes, in exchange for payments of "blood diamonds" often obtained by slave labour.

    Prosecutors said there was no reason for leniency, given the extreme nature of the crimes and Taylor's position of power.

    "The purposely cruel and savage crimes committed included public executions and amputations of civilians, the display of decapitated heads at checkpoints, the killing and public disembowelment of a civilian whose intestines were then stretched across the road to make a check point, public rapes of women and girls, and people burned alive in their homes," prosecutor Brenda Hollis said in a pre-hearing brief.

    The defence attorney, argued for a sentence reflecting Taylor's indirect role: he was found guilty only of aiding the rebels, not leading them as prosecutors originally charged.

    He said Taylor's conviction has been "trumpeted...as sending an unequivocal message to world leaders that holding office confers no immunity" from war crimes prosecution.

    But the reality is that while many Western countries have funded militias that have committed atrocities, no Western leader has ever been indicted by a war crimes tribunal, he said.


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