Former President of Liberia sentenced to 50 years for War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity

On 26 April 2012, Trial Chamber II of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (the “Special Court”) delivered its judgment in The Prosecutor v. Charles Ghankay Taylor (the “Judgment” or the “Trial”). The Special Court found Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia (“Taylor” or the “Accused”), guilty of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity during the Sierra Leone civil war (the “War”) of 1991-2002. Sentenced on 30 May 2012, Taylor will serve a prison sentence of 50 years.

Procedural Background

The Agreement establishing the Special Court was signed by the government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations (the “UN”) on 16 January 2002 in order “to prosecute persons who bear the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law committed in the territory of Sierra Leone since 30 November 1996.”

On 4 June 2003, an indictment and arrest warrant for Taylor were unsealed by the prosecution. Two months later, on 11 August 2003, Taylor stepped down as President of Liberia and went into exile in Nigeria.
The Accused subsequently applied to the Special Court to challenge its jurisdiction on the basis that he, as head of State at the time of the indictment, was immune from prosecution. On 31 May 2004, the Special Court rejected this challenge to its jurisdiction on the basis that “the sovereign equality of States does not prevent a Head of State from being prosecuted before an international criminal tribunal or court”. On 29 March 2006, Taylor was arrested by Nigerian authorities and transferred to The Hague on 20 June 2006 for security concerns. The Trial started on 6 January 2008 with proceedings formally closed on 11 March 2011.


The Accused became President of Liberia in 1997, following a civil war in which he fought as leader of the rebel group National Patriotic Front of Liberia (the “NPFL”).

The Judgment concerns the Accused’s involvement in the War which devastated Sierra Leone for 11 years from 1991-2002. In 1991, Sierra Leonean guerrilla fighters of the Revolutionary United Front (“RUF”) attempted to overthrow Sierra Leone’s Government, without success. The RUF did, however, take control of areas in Sierra Leone that were rich in diamonds, particularly in the east and in the south of the country. Clashes between the Government and the RUF rebels continued for six years.

Taylor was alleged, as leader of the NPFL and later as President of Liberia, to have assisted, encouraged, directed or controlled the warring factions in conducting armed attacks in Sierra Leone from 30 November 1996 to 18 January 2002 (the “indictment period”). In 1997, the Sierra Leone Army (the “SLA”) overthrew the country’s democratically elected Government in a coup d’état and invited the RUF to take part in this Junta. Despite the intervention of the UN and the signing of the Lomé Peace Accord in 1999, violent clashes continued until 2002 when the war was finally declared over by Sierra Leone’s President, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.

The Decision

The Role of the Accused
The Special Court found that, during the indictment period, Taylor had provided Sierra Leone’s RUF rebels with weapons and military and operational support. In exchange, the Accused received diamonds directly from some of the RUF’s leading members, Foday Sankoh, Issa Sesay and Sam Bockarie.

The Special Court further held that Taylor played a role in the Lomé Peace Accord negotiations, publicly calling for the end of the fighting and promoting peace while privately continuing to provide arms and ammunitions to the RUF. The prosecution alleged Taylor’s behavior to be subversive, suggesting that he improperly assisted and advised the RUF delegation before and during the negotiations so as to procure the most favourable outcome for the RUF and himself. However, the Special Court held that the prosecution failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the Accused “controlled the RUF delegation or dictated the outcome of the negotiations”.

Leadership, Command Structure and Joint Criminal Enterprise
First, the Special Court held that, although the Accused had provided essential help to the rebels, he was not a part of their command structure. The prosecution alleged that Taylor played a leading role within the structure of the RUF, for example by taking over the RUF leader Foday Sankoh’s role while this latter was jailed in 1997. Furthermore, according to the prosecution, Taylor directly promoted Sam Bockarie to the leadership of the RUF in 1998. The Special Court rejected these allegations and found that, even if the Accused had substantial influence over the leadership of the RUF, that influence over the conduct of others fell short of effective command and control.

Second, the prosecution alleged that the Accused, through NPFL, had participated in a common plan, common criminal purpose and design (“joint criminal enterprise”) with, for example, members of the RUF and the Armed Force Revolutionary Council (the “AFRC”) – a group of Sierra Leonean soldiers allied with the RUF – in order forcibly to control the territory and population of Sierra Leone and to pillage its resources through criminal means. Ultimately, however, the Special Court held that the cooperation between the Accused’s NPFL and the RUF was limited in its purpose; it was military and not criminal in its nature. In other words, whilst Taylor and the RUF were military allies and trading partners, the prosecution had failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the Accused had participated in a common plan, design or purpose which amounted to the commission of a crime within the jurisdiction of the Special Court. For this reason, the Special Court acquitted Taylor of being part of a joint criminal enterprise.

Aiding and abetting
The Special Court found Taylor criminally responsible for aiding and abetting the crimes set out in the indictment. It held that the military, financial and operational support provided by the Accused to the RUF “constituted practical assistance which had a substantial effect” during various military offensives in which there was widespread commission of crimes against the Sierra Leonean civilian population, including murder, rape, sexual slavery and the conscription of child soldiers. It was beyond reasonable doubt that the Accused knew his support would assist in the commission of such crimes.


The Taylor Judgment is a landmark decision which perhaps suggests the gradual erosion of impunity for political leaders accused of international crimes. Notably, the Accused is the first head of State to be prosecuted and sentenced before an international criminal tribunal since the Nuremburg trials. Taylor’s sentence may now serve as a precedent for future trials of military and political leaders, including that of Mr. Laurent Gbagbo, the former President of the Côte d’Ivoire, who faces charges of crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court.