Cheers, quiet relief in Sierra Leone as Taylor found guilty

AFP , Thursday 26 Apr 2012

Sierra Leoneans cheered or quietly let the news sink in as ex-Liberian president Charles Taylor was convicted of aiding and abetting a terror campaign by rebels during their country's 11-year civil war

Members of media surround double war-amputee Alhaji Jusu Jarka, 46, outside Special Court for Sierra Leone after a live broadcast of the verdict in capital Freetown, Thursday (Photo: Reuters)

Victims, leaders and civil society representatives packed the headquarters of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) on Thursday. Attendees filled the Court, a modern building in the lush, hilly capital, to watch on monitors as the verdict unfolded in a courtroom thousands of kilometres (miles) away.

People fidgeted uncomfortably on the hard seats as complex details were read out, their faces hard to read as they were reminded of terrors such as human heads and entrails being used at checkpoints to instil fear.

Al Hadji Jusu Jarka, former chairman of the association of amputees mutilated by the rebels, watched the nearly two-hour judgement stony-faced, using his prosthetic arms to clasp a handkerchief to wipe his face in the heat.

"I am happy ... I feel justice has been done," Jarka said, after calmly listening to judge Richard Lussick announce Taylor was guilty of arming the rebels who in 1999 hacked off first his left, then his right arm as he was pinned to a mango tree.

"We as victims expect that Taylor will be given 100 years or more in prison," he added.

Sentencing will take place on May 30, Lussick said, ending some five years of hearings before the SCSL in a special courtroom on the outskirts of The Hague.

While victims quietly filed out of the court building in Freetown, another hall packed with victims and tribal chiefs from around the country erupted into cheers as they turned to congratulate each other.

"People were so happy," said a broadly-smiling P.C. Kaimpumu, paramount chief for the southern Bonthe district, adding that he was "perfectly pleased."

The verdict served as a warning to the country that "you can't just commit crimes without impunity," he said.

Outside, the Accountability Now Club (ANC) silently held up posters reading: "Shame on you Taylor" and "Please give us our diamonds back before you go to prison".

Information Minister Ibrahim Ben Kargbo said he was "satisfied" with the verdict that would allow the country, which has to contend with grinding poverty on top of its war wounds, to move on.

The verdict "gives us the opportunity to work to a way forward, after so many years of fighting, to put in place structures for development, to put aside impunity, to ensure human rights are protected," he said.

Eldred Collins, a spokesman for the rebels during the war, is now the chairmen of their political offshoot, the Revolutionary United Front Party (RUFP)

He maintains it was former RUF leader Foday Sankoh, who died in custody in 2003, who should have had his day in court.

"It (the verdict) is the court's decision, but Foday Sankoh should have been tried. Charles Taylor wasn't directly involved," he said.

Mohammed Bah, 35, who was forced to become a combatant at age 24 and also later had his left arm amputated during the war, said he "feels great" at the decision.

However former child soldier Mohammed Lamin Fofana, now 25, said the verdict did little to free him from his memories.

"Charles Taylor has disrupted our lives and the lives of all Sierra Leonean youth. Now my life has been changed, for this I will never forgive him."

Posseh Conteh, 18, struggled to voice her recollection of the war. She was four when rebels hacked off her left leg as she and her family ran from their village.

"I was very small," she smiled shyly. "I want him (Taylor) to be convicted to jail."

Others felt Taylor's conviction did nothing to change the hardships they had been through.

"You can try Taylor, jail him, but what about us the victims? What will now happen to us?" asked Ken Sesay, who lost his left leg. "Why aren't we being helped?"

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