THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Former Liberian President Charles Taylor will hear Thursday whether appeals judges uphold or overturn his landmark conviction and 50-year sentence for aiding murderous rebels in Sierra Leone's civil war.
Taylor, 65, became the first former head of state convicted by an international war crimes court since World War II when the Special Court for Sierra Leone found him guilty on April 26, 2012, of 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity including terrorism, murder, rape and using child soldiers.
Judges said he provided crucial aid to rebels and helped plan attacks in return for "blood diamonds" mined by slave laborers in Sierra Leone and political influence in the volatile West African region. His conviction was hailed as ushering in a new era of accountability for heads of state.
"The trial and judgment of Charles Taylor sets out a clear marker that even those at the highest levels of power can be held to account," Elise Keppler, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch said in a statement. "The Taylor trial, and the Sierra Leone Special Court's work overall, have made a major contribution to justice for brutal crimes committed during Sierra Leone's conflict."
About 50,000 people died in the 11-year civil war that ended in 2002. Thousands more were left mutilated in a conflict that became known for the extreme cruelty of rival rebel groups who gained international notoriety for hacking off the limbs of their victims and carving their groups' initials into opponents. The rebels developed gruesome terms for the mutilations that became their chilling trademark: They would offer their victims the choice of "long sleeves" or "short sleeves" — having their hands hacked off or their arms sliced off above the elbow.
Taylor was convicted not only of aiding and abetting Sierra Leone rebels from Liberia, but also for actually planning some of the attacks carried out by Sierra Leone rebel groups, the Revolutionary United Front and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council.
It isn't clear if the Sierra Leone court's appeal panel will take into account a February appeals judgment by the U.N. Yugoslav war crimes tribunal that acquitted the former chief of staff of the Yugoslav National Army, Gen. Momcilo Perisic, of aiding forces fighting in a neighboring country. Perisic was freed after appeals judges said it hadn't been proven that he sent supplies to Bosnian Serb forces with the "specific intent" that they be used to commit atrocities.
The ruling was seen as raising the bar on the level of proof needed to uphold such aiding and abetting charges, though the Sierra Leone court isn't bound to follow in the Yugoslav tribunal's footsteps.
Taylor's lawyers say he should be acquitted on all counts. Prosecutors asked appeals judges to rule that he was even more closely involved in the crimes in Sierra Leone than was laid out in his original conviction and urged judges to increase Taylor's sentence to 80 years, saying the 50-year sentence wasn't "reflective of the inherent gravity of the totality of his criminal conduct and overall culpability."
If Taylor's sentence is upheld, he will be transferred to Britain, which has agreed to provide a cell for him.
Taylor's trial was moved from the Special Court of Sierra Leone's headquarters in the capital, Freetown, to the Netherlands because of fears it could destabilize the West African region if held in Sierra Leone.
The Taylor appeals ruling will be the final judgment at the court, which indicted 13 of the main architects of the atrocities in Sierra Leone. Two died before trial and one more remains unaccounted for and possibly dead. Another died before hearing a verdict and all the others were tried and convicted.
The court's trial chamber in Freetown will be converted to house Sierra Leone's Supreme Court in the future. Another part of the court is being turned into a peace museum and its detention facility has been put to use as a prison by local authorities.