LONDON (AFP) - The international community roundly cheered Thursday's conviction of former Liberian president Charles Taylor as a historic precedent that paves the way for future trials against criminal heads of state.
Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said Taylor's conviction on charges of arming Sierra Leonean rebels in a brutal civil war was proof that national leaders could not hide behind immunity.
"Those who have committed the most serious of crimes can and will be held to account for their actions," Hague said.
Taylor is expected to be jailed in Britain after he is sentenced May 30, ending five years of hearings at the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said the "historic moment in the development of international justice" meant tyrannical rulers could no longer retire on blood money, while Washington said the conviction was an "enormous" historical milestone.
"The Taylor prosecution at the Special Court delivers a strong message to all perpetrators of atrocities, including those in the highest positions of power, that they will be held accountable," the US State Department said.
The view was echoed by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who called the judgment a major achievement that "represents a landmark decision in the fight against impunity."
Taylor's lawyer Courtenay Griffiths, however, slammed the decision and accused the prosecution of "buying" evidence.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe called the conviction "an historical precedent" and warned said all dictators must be held to account.
"It's time dictators the world over and their accomplices understand that they cannot carry out with impunity such acts that revolt the conscience of humanity and that they must be held to account," Juppe said.
Interpol said the conviction was a milestone and pledged to "continue to work closely with all international tribunals to identify, locate and bring to justice those individuals accused of war crimes."
In Sierra Leone, which underwent a horrific 11-year conflict that claimed 120,000 lives, victims watched on monitors as the verdict unfolded in a Dutch courtroom.
"I am happy ... I feel justice has been done," said Al Hadji Jusu Jarka, whose arms were hacked off in 1999.
Others greeted the news with quiet relief and sombre reflection as the verdict stirred deeply traumatic memories of the horrors inflicted during the civil war, in which rebel groups fought over access to Sierra Leone's diamonds.
Prosecutors said the Revolutionary United Front bought weapons from Taylor, paying him with illegally mined "blood diamonds" worth millions, stuffed into mayonnaise jars. The rebel group used slave labour to gather the gems and enlisted child soldiers.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said the verdict sent a message to high-ranking officials responsible for crimes that they would eventually face justice.
Amnesty's Sierra Leone head Brima Abdulai Sheriff said the conviction would bring some measure of justice, but said Taylor and others sentenced by the court were just the "tip of the iceberg".
"Thousands of persons suspected of criminal responsibility for incidences of unlawful killings, rape and sexual violence, mutilations and the use of children in Sierra Leone's armed conflict have never been investigated, much less prosecuted," Sheriff said, noting that only a limited number of victims have received reparations.