By Thomas Escritt and Simon Akam
THE HAGUE/FREETOWN (Reuters) - Begging outside a supermarket in Sierra Leone's capital Freetown, Tamba Ngaujah has little doubt who was behind the Revolutionary United Front rebels who, 20 years ago, gave him "short sleeves".
"They put my arms on the sticks, took machetes, and cut them ... They only thing I can tell you about Charles Taylor: I heard from the RUF who amputated my hands that they were supported by Charles Taylor," 46-year-old Ngaujah said.
On Thursday, a special court in The Hague will give its verdict on just what level of responsibility former Liberian President Taylor had in these war atrocities. Taylor himself denies any responsibility.
In an 11-year conflict which by 2002 left over 50,000 dead and become a byword for gratuitous violence, "short sleeves" was the macabre tag used to distinguish amputations like Ngaujah's at the elbow from less drastic "long sleeve" cuts at the wrist.
Prosecutors allege Taylor, from his base in neighboring Liberia, directed and armed the Sierra Leonian rebels and so bears responsibility on 11 counts including murder, mutilation, rape, enslavement, and recruitment of child soldiers.
Whether Taylor is found guilty or not, the verdict will be the first in a court of this kind against a former head of state on serious violations of international law.
Yugoslav ex-leader Slobodan Milosevic died in 2006 before the judgment was due in the Yugoslavia war crimes tribunal, also in The Hague
In 2009, Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir became the first sitting head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has ordered his arrest on charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide related to the conflict in Darfur. Bashir rejects the charges.
"The Sierra Leone conflict was brutal, and Charles Taylor was seen as a 'Big Man' in the region," said Elise Keppler, senior counsel at Human Rights Watch of the slowly dwindling club of those ruling with impunity in Africa.
"Regardless of the verdict, this will send a clear signal that people implicated in the worst crimes will face justice no matter how important or powerful they are," she said.
'STRANGE TO US'
Since Taylor's indictment in 2003, the Special Court for Sierra Leone - a so-called "hybrid" court staffed by both international and Sierra Leonian personnel - has produced testimony ranging from the horrific to the titillating.
As prosecutors sought to link Taylor to the locally-mined "blood diamonds" which helped fuel the war, the court heard the bafflement of supermodel Naomi Campbell at the uncut diamonds - or "dirty little pebbles" in her words - delivered during the night to her hotel room after a 1997 charity dinner with Taylor.
It also featured victims of amputation who displayed remains of mutilated limbs, and graphic accounts of massacres, torture and cannibalism as the prosecution called 91 witnesses whose accounts are included in almost 50,000 pages of transcripts.
Typical is the description by one such witness of the mutilation and execution of his brother by rebels.
"They cut off all his 10 fingers," Patrick Sheriff said. "They put them in (a) cup, then they shot him."
Another witness described fighters betting on the sex of a pregnant woman's child. According to the prosecution: "The rebels shot the woman dead, opened her belly, took out the baby... The baby cried and then died."
For prosecutors, the challenge is to show a link between Taylor and such crimes. Much depends on the evidence of seven radio operators who allegedly kept him in touch with rebel groups. Taylor does not deny atrocities, but does deny any role.
"We did hear of certain actions that were going on in Sierra Leone that ... were a little strange to us, because these things were not happening in Liberia," he said at the trial.
MENACE TO STABILITY
Former Special Court of Sierra Leone lawyer Sareta Ashraph argued that even if a link between Taylor and RUF rebels is demonstrated, it would be harder to show he had a clear planning or command role in the late-1990s period covered by the court.
"It difficult to see the motivation for putting himself in charge of the RUF," said Ashraph, who is writing a history of the Sierra Leone war.
"He was already president of Liberia, was making money off them and would have realized the best the RUF were going to do is force the government into a stalemate."
Rebels and government signed a 1999 peace deal but fighting continued for nearly three years until the RUF was defeated with military help from ex-colonial power Britain and U.N. forces.
While Taylor, 64, was deemed enough of a menace to West Africa's stability that his trial was moved to The Hague after his March 2006 arrest during exile in Nigeria, his present-day influence is harder to define.
The region is still plagued by mercenaries like those who created havoc two decades ago. But militant Islamists such as Nigeria's Boko Haram or al Qaeda agents in the Sahel zone are now the bigger threat, alongside the growing narcotics trade.
Nonetheless, acquittal for Taylor would be an uncomfortable prospect for Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf who became his arch-enemy after withdrawing support for him early in the Liberian civil war of the 1990s that brought him to power.
"I never speak about Charles Taylor," Johnson-Sirleaf told Reuters during her successful re-election campaign last year. Yet while he is abhorred by many of Liberians, Taylor remains a local hero and symbol of national pride for some.
"The best president I have seen in my time is Charles Ghankay Taylor. He is better than Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf," 40-year-old farmer Karhn Dayplay told Reuters.
"Taylor must come back here to rule this nation. We are waiting for him," said the resident of Karnplay, one of the Nimba County towns from which Taylor launched his 1989 rebellion to unseat the then President Samuel Doe.
A man used to giving orders, Taylor has wanted to be closely involved in shaping his defense, taking the witness stand for seven months with confident, forthright performances.
As he awaits the verdict, he has immersed himself in study of the Jewish faith to which he converted before arriving in The Hague. He has regular visits from a rabbi and does not receive his lawyers on the Sabbath.
His library - now put in storage - had occupied an entire room at the seaside detention facilities used by the tribunal and the International Criminal Court, where he is said to maintain cordial relations with old enemy Laurent Gbagbo, the former Ivory Coast leader transferred there last year to face charges of crimes against humanity.
His defense team reports that he is reading "Strategic Vision," the latest book by former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, and that Taylor followed last year's upheavals in North Africa with avid interest.
He has benefited from the company of other African detainees including Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo to go through legal briefs and cook home favorites together - one domestic option he may lack in the British maximum security prison due to house him if found guilty.
While some Africans see the long list of countrymen due to be tried in The Hague as evidence of bias in the international legal system, others see the Taylor verdict as one step towards breaking down the impunity many of its biggest criminals enjoy.
Liberia itself has made little progress in prosecuting those responsible for crimes in its war, while abuses committed by northern rebels who backed Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara in last year's conflict have yet to be fully investigated.
"This is part of a global process of increasing accountability for the worst crimes," said HRW's Keppler. "In the world of justice versus impunity, justice is still young."
(Additional reporting by Alphonso Toweh and Clair MacDougall in Liberia; Mark John and Richard Valdmanis in Dakar; Writing by Mark John and Thomas Escritt; Editing by Philippa Fletcher)