05/30/2012 01:35 EDT | Updated 07/30/2012 05:12 EDT

Canadians reflect on blood diamonds, guns after Taylor war crimes case

OTTAWA - Four and half years ago, Canadian Ian Smillie sat in a Dutch courtroom staring down the defence lawyers for the man he now simply refers to as a "monster."

"His lawyers called me a lair. They called me an amateur sleuth: 'I put it to you Mr. Smillie, is it not true that you are just an amateur sleuth?'" Smillie recalls in an affected accent.

Smillie was the first witness before the Special Court for Sierra Leone in the case against Charles Taylor — the warlord, "blood diamond" profiteer and former Liberian president — who received a historic 50-year prison sentence on Wednesday for trading guns for dirty diamonds.

A milestone in Taylor's international legal saga came Wednesday when he was sentenced for what a judge in the Netherlands-based tribunal called "some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history" — essentially arming the rebels in neighbouring Sierra Leone while enriching himself with bags of rough cut diamonds.

Taylor, 64, is now the first former head of state to be convicted by an international war crimes court since the Second World War.

His conviction and sentence is being widely viewed as a message to dictators the world over. And it also highlights the long, expensive road in bringing the world's despots before international courts.

For Smillie and a select group of Canadians, Taylor's conviction can be viewed through the prism of blood diamonds. Smillie authored a report on the connection between guns and diamonds in war-torn Africa, something that Canada's former United Nations ambassador Robert Fowler, and ex-Liberal MP David Pratt also documented separately.

Smillie was called by the prosecution because his report, published in 2000, was the first to finger Taylor's blood diamond connection. The reports by Smillie and his fellow Canadians helped spur the creation of the international diamond-certification system, known as the Kimberley Process, that has attempted — with varying degrees of success — to keep conflict diamonds off the fingers of bedazzled brides-to-be the world over.

"It's taken that long for all of that to be corroborated, another 12 years," says Smillie, an author, activist and Order of Canada recipient. "He was quite a monster … it took a long time to get him into a courtroom in the first place."

Fowler documented the connection between diamonds and the arming of Angolan rebels in their bloody 27-year civil conflict when he was Canada's UN ambassador in the late 1990s.

Though he focused on another African conflict, Fowler says Canadians can take great satisfaction how the blood diamonds saga led to Taylor's demise in the Sierra Leone tragedy.

"I take enormous satisfaction in the conviction of Taylor and I think it makes is less likely that monsters of that kind will be allowed to do those things in the future. It's a good day for justice."

Pratt met Taylor in May 2001 in Monrovia, Liberia's destitute and backward capital. At the time, Pratt was the then-Liberal government's special envoy for Sierra Leone.

Two years earlier, Pratt had travelled to Sierra Leone and saw first-hand the new generation of recovering amputees, who'd been hacked by machete- wielding rebels during some of the worst fighting in the country.

Those memories were seared into Pratt's consciousness as he sat listening to the slick, sophisticated Taylor deny any involvement in blood diamonds and blame the British for framing him. Pratt wasn't buying any of it.

"Taylor's reputation had obviously preceded him," he says laughing, "in terms of my impressions of him."

Later, Pratt was debriefed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, "just going through what I knew about Taylor, what I'd heard in the region."

Smillie had his own meeting with Taylor in Monrovia, several months before Pratt's, in the fall of 2000. The day of the meeting, the local, state-controlled newspaper splashed details of Smillie's damning report on the dictator and accused the visiting UN delegation of being out to get the president.

The UN was already nervous about the fact-finding visit that Smillie was leading, but this really raised alarm bells.

"We're waiting to see a warlord, killer president. We've been warned to be very careful."

Smillie entered Taylor's vast, high-ceilinged office, with its baroque furnishings, heavily curtained windows and pictures of Jesus, Mary and the saints.

"He was polite. We were warned if he was in a bad mood we shouldn't ask too many questions," Smillie recalls. "He is a ruthless killer, but he can be charming."

So Smillie pushed the envelope.

He asked Taylor directly about the connection between diamonds and guns.

"He'd say: "Come on, I'm the president of Liberia. Do you think that I haven't got better things to work on than that?' "

After the one-hour meeting, Smillie and his small entourage waited for a private plane to arrive and whisk them out of the country before they pushed their luck any further.

Smillie never imagined he would share the same room with Taylor ever again, let alone a courtroom.

Years later, Smillie laments the shortcomings of the world's diamond- certification process. But he says Taylor's conviction helps atone for the world's failures to prosecute so many others with blood on their hands.

"Taylor is really the icon for so many people. I think that makes up for not going after more people."