Prosecutors have demanded an 80-year jail term for former Liberian president Charles Taylor, who last week was convicted of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity, before a sentencing decision that is expected to set a precedent.
Taylor’s sentencing, on May 30, will be closely watched for its impact on other heads of state involved in cases at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, where Laurent Gbagbo, the former president of Ivory Coast, is due to face charges of crimes against humanity.
In a brief filed to judges at a special court in The Hague on Thursday, the prosecution said Taylor’s position as a head of state, and the “length of time during which the crimes continued”, were aggravating circumstances that necessitated a lengthy term, Reuters reports.
Last week judges ruled that Taylor, 64, had helped the militias which, during the 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone, had perpetrated acts of terror against the civilian population, disembowelling and mutilating their victims, and recruiting child soldiers.
Until now, the longest sentence imposed by the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) was one of 52 years, handed down to Issa Sesay, a commander in the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) militia that was responsible for some of the war’s worst brutality.
The prosecution had sought to have Taylor convicted of direct criminal responsibility for human rights violations committed during the course of the conflict, but judges found that Taylor had not been in a position of direct command.
“The SCSL has given huge sentences, but that would be difficult for Taylor, given the way judges characterised his role,” said William Schabas, professor of law at Middlesex University.
For now, there are few precedents. While Karl Doenitz, the German admiral, was German president in the final days of World War II, his 10-year sentence was handed down for his activities as a military commander.
Heads of state who have been tried and sentenced, albeit by national courts, include Alberto Fujimori, who received 25 years for his role in kidnappings and killings committed while he was president of Peru, and Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, who was hanged.
“The whole field (of international criminal justice) is in disarray over sentencing,” said Jens David Ohlin, professor of law at Cornell University.
“There is quite a debate in our field over whether the central issue is Charles Taylor’s position as a former head of state or whether it’s more important that he was only an accomplice in these crimes,” Ohlin added.
“In theory accomplices should receive lower sentences than perpetrators, but if the crimes are so severe that only a life sentence will capture that level of guilt, then there is an argument that even accomplices should receive a long sentence.”
The Sierra Leone court has handed down far more severe sentences than the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), whose sentences have topped out at 30 years apart from one life sentence.
“In Europe, there is a mindset that excessively long sentences trigger human rights concerns,” Ohlin said.
The ICC, which has been heavily influenced by the practices evolved over 19 years by the ICTY, was likely to follow this pattern of milder sentencing, he said.
Judges are due to sentence Taylor at the end of this month, after receiving a sentencing brief from his defence counsel. Both sides are expected to appeal.