The trials of the world's worst war criminals

Slobodan Milosevic

Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic was the first sitting head of state to be charged with war crimes | Image: Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0

Perhaps the most famous war crime trials in history were the pivotal proceedings in Nuremberg, which saw dozens of Nazi officials indicted for a string of atrocities. But in the many decades since then, other figures have also faced judgement for almost unimaginable war crimes.

Anwar Raslan

One of the most significant war crimes convictions of modern times took place in January 2022. This was when Anwar Raslan – a Syrian former intelligence officer – was handed a life sentence for numerous crimes against humanity during the Syrian civil war. The trial took place in Germany, the country that had granted Raslan asylum after he’d defected from the Syrian regime in 2012.

Prosecutors were able to take action against Raslan thanks to the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows for crimes committed in one country to be tried in another. The trial saw dozens of witnesses provide disturbing accounts of the brutality inflicted on prisoners at a detention facility overseen by Raslan.

They described how people victimised by the Assad regime were brought to the facility, beaten with cables and metal pipes, packed into claustrophobic cells, and subjected to sexual torture in a prison dubbed ‘Hell on Earth’. Raslan’s own crimes were found to have included murder, rape, and dangerous bodily harm.

His conviction was a watershed moment, marking the first time a senior figure in the Assad regime faced justice for such acts. As one former prisoner put it: “This verdict is important for all Syrians who have suffered and are still suffering from the Assad regime’s crimes.”

Slobodan Milosevic

In 1999, Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic became the first sitting head of state to be charged with war crimes. It wouldn’t be until 2002, well after his regime had come to an end, that the one-time Serbian strongman finally stood trial in The Hague. Milosevic was implicated in some of Europe’s worst atrocities since the Second World War, carried out in the name of Serbian nationalism during the violent breakup of Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s.

The savagery had played out during conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, and there was so much evidence to present that the prosecution took two years just to make its case in court. Lawyers argued that Milosevic was connected to widespread ethnic cleansing of non-Serbs and horrendous mass slaughters. This included the infamous Srebrenica massacre in July 1995, which saw more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims murdered by Bosnian Serb forces.

In the words of chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte: “Some of the incidents revealed an almost medieval savagery and a calculated cruelty that went far beyond the bounds of legitimate warfare.”

Milosevic, a trained lawyer, was by turns cocky and furious as he defended himself. He called the proceedings a farce and said he should be “given credit for peace… not war”. Even his nemesis, Del Ponte, later conceded that he put in a strong performance. “He really knew how to deal with people. I admired that.”

But the epic courtroom drama did not result in justice being delivered. In 2006, just months before a verdict was due, Milosevic was found dead in his cell, his long-running heart problems finally having caught up with him.

Charles Taylor

Unfolding in The Hague in 2007, the war crimes trial of Charles Taylor – former president of the West African republic of Liberia – featured some jarringly surreal scenes. Most notably, movie star Mia Farrow and supermodel Naomi Campbell giving evidence regarding a gift of diamonds that the warlord had allegedly given Campbell at a dinner hosted by Nelson Mandela.

Diamonds were a major focus of the trial since Taylor was accused of aiding violent rebels in neighbouring Sierra Leone in exchange for millions of dollars worth of blood diamonds. Taylor was also accused of aiding and abetting a catalogue of atrocities in Sierra Leone, including rape, murder, and the conscription of child soldiers. Gruesome accounts were given of the horrors enacted in Sierra Leone, including an incident where a man was disembowelled so his intestines could be stretched across a road to form a checkpoint.

Taylor, who had once campaigned for election in his native Liberia using the bleak slogan “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him”, was found guilty on all counts in 2012. He was given 50 years (a death sentence, given his age) and is currently serving his time in HMP Frankland, Durham.

Ali Hassan al-Majid

Regarded by some commentators as Iraq’s answer to Heinrich Himmler, Ali Hassan al-Majid earned the dark moniker ‘Chemical Ali’ because of his fondness for unleashing devastating gas attacks on swathes of innocent citizens. A military commander under his cousin, Saddam Hussein, he was arguably even more ruthless and violently minded than the Iraqi dictator, once chiding Saddam for being “too gentle, too merciful”.

After being arrested by US forces following the invasion of Iraq, al-Majid was put on trial in Baghdad in 2006. He was charged with crimes against humanity and genocide, thanks to a notorious campaign of violence that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s.

Al-Majid, who was resolutely unapologetic in court, was found guilty and sentenced to hang. In fact, in the years that followed he would face more charges and be handed three more death sentences – including one for the horrific gas attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja that killed upwards of 5,000 people.

Harrowing accounts of the attack recounted how whole families dropped dead in the streets, laughing hysterically in the burning, toxic haze. Chemical Ali, instigator of this and so many other horrors during Saddam’s reign, was finally hanged in January 2010.

If you enjoyed reading about justice being served to these war criminals, why not read about some dictators getting toppled?