By Thomas Escritt
THE HAGUE (Reuters) - A special court delivers its verdict on Thursday on whether Liberian ex-president Charles Taylor is guilty of crimes against humanity by supporting and directing rebels who pillaged, raped and murdered during the Sierra Leone civil war.
The verdict will be the first passed on a former head of state by The Hague's international courts in what human rights advocates say is a reminder that even the most powerful do not enjoy impunity.
Yugoslav ex-president Slobodan Milosevic died in The Hague in 2006 before the war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia could reach a verdict. The one in Taylor's case, the first test of international justice against a former head of state, will be watched closely in much of Africa and beyond.
Taylor, who was president of Liberia from 1997 to 2003, is accused of backing and giving orders to Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in the 11-year civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone that killed some 50,000 people.
The prosecution says the RUF undermined a ceasefire agreement in 1999, prolonging the war for another three years, and that Taylor financed their war effort from the proceeds of "blood diamonds" mined illegally in Sierra Leone.
"The Taylor verdict is a watershed moment, however it turns out," said Richard Dekker, head of the international justice program at Human Rights Watch.
"As president, Taylor is believed to have been responsible for so much murder and mayhem which unfolded in Sierra Leone. His was a shadow that loomed across the region, in the Ivory Coast, in Sierra Leone and Liberia."
Taylor has denied the charges.
The crimes of the RUF are not in doubt. Courts have earlier convicted RUF fighters of crimes against humanity, including rape, torture and terrorism.
Civilians were mutilated during the conflict, their arms being cut off above the hand (known by fighters as "long sleeves") or above the elbow ("short sleeves").
Trial witnesses described seeing children and pregnant women being shot, disemboweled or mutilated in a process aimed at creating terror in the civilian population.
But the challenge was to link Taylor to these crimes.
"The accused never set foot in Sierra Leone when these crimes were being committed. He never directly, physically committed these crimes," Brenda Hollis, the court's chief prosecutor, told Reuters.
"In a domestic case, you have to prove there was a murder, we have the added level of proving linkage."
This was the reason the supermodel Naomi Campbell was summoned to give testimony to the court in 2010.
The prosecution said Taylor had sent uncut diamonds to her hotel room after a dinner given by former South African president Nelson Mandela, attended by both her and Taylor. She told the court she had no idea who had sent her the diamonds, which she called "dirty little pebbles".
Much will also depend on the evidence of seven radio operators who prosecutors said kept Taylor in touch with rebel groups.
Whatever the verdict, the losing side is likely to appeal, meaning the trial could easily last for another six months.
But most observers of the trial regard a conviction on at least some of the 11 counts against Taylor as likely.
If found guilty, Taylor would serve time in a British maximum security prison.
That would contrast sharply with the comparatively luxurious life Taylor enjoys in detention in The Hague. His case was moved there because of fears that his security could not be guaranteed in Sierra Leone.
In The Hague, Taylor has been free to mix with his fellow inmates and he has maintained "cordial" relations with his old enemy Laurent Gbagbo, the former Ivory Coast leader who faces charges of crimes against humanity.
Taylor has also been known to cook and compare defense briefs with Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo.
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.
He remains preoccupied with politics, following last year's upheavals in North Africa with avid interest.
But for Hollis, who has been leading Taylor's prosecution since 2006, and whose involvement in international justice goes back to the Yugoslav tribunal in the mid-1990s, reaching this milestone is a moment for "a feeling of satisfaction."
"This is an important lesson for the naysayers who questioned whether any accused could get a fair trial before an international court, and before an independent and impartial panel," she said. "This trial reinforces the principle that nobody is above the law."
(Reporting By Thomas Escritt; Editing by Sara Webb and Mark Heinrich)