Taylor expected to get lighter sentence

2012-05-29 22:38

Dakar - Former Liberian president Charles Taylor is likely to receive a lighter sentence than what the prosecution has called for when judges at the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone deliver their final judgement on Wednesday, experts predict.

Taylor was found guilty in The Hague on 26 April on 11 counts of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity during Sierra Leone's brutal civil war, which ended in 2002.

Wednesday's sentencing follows a hearing earlier this month in which chief prosecutor Brenda Hollis recommended that Taylor be handed a punishment of 80 years behind bars. Taylor's defence team, led by Courtenay Griffiths, has asked that the 64-year-old former leader is not given a jail term that would translate to a life sentence.

According to William Shabas, a renowned professor in international human rights law at Britain's Middlesex University, the fact that Taylor was acquitted of commanding and masterminding the atrocities in Sierra Leone should be key in determining an appropriate sentence.

"Taylor has been portrayed by the prosecution and by many in the international community as being the evil villain behind the conflict in Sierra Leone," Shabas told dpa on Tuesday.

"There's a tendency to want to punish him for all of that, and yet at the same time the message that emerged from the judgement is one of someone who played a rather less significant role in the conflict... as an accomplice to the atrocities rather than as the central organizer of them," he said.

Shabas said the Special Court for Sierra Leone gave "extraordinarily high sentences" to the Sierra Leonean rebel leaders it convicted before Taylor.

"They range from a few years to 52 years ... I think it should come down significantly from that," Shabas added. "International courts have seen sentences for other terrible atrocities that were in the neighbourhood of 15 to 20 years."

Weight of retribution

Although the court is not officially allowed to hand out a life sentence, rights experts say the jail term recommended by the prosecution would be just that.

"In Liberia, there's a feeling that the weight of retribution should fall on the shoulders of Taylor," said Simon Cooper, a human rights worker in north-western Liberia, close to the border with Sierra Leone.

"I hear people saying he should go to jail and never come out," he said. "People are still traumatized after both conflicts, but the important thing to remember is that Taylor was also part of a system that came to function during war. The court proved that he did not create the system," Cooper said.

Shabas said the prosecution's demand for an 80-year sentence was "purely symbolic" and "unprecedented".

"Perhaps that was based on what the prosecution tried to prove rather than what they did prove," he said.

Depending on the strength of tomorrow's sentence, an appeal is expected from either the prosecution or the defence.

Taylor is likely to spend his jail term in a British maximum security prison, although the defence has said the 64-year-old should be imprisoned closer to Africa in order to allow him to maintain relations with his family, which includes 15 biological children.

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