By Thomas Escritt
THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Prosecutors called for a stiffer sentence for former Liberian president Charles Taylor on Tuesday, telling war crimes judges he played a direct role in crimes against humanity during the civil war in Sierra Leone.
But Taylor's defense, which wants his conviction overturned, told the court hearing appeals from both sides that judges had erred in convicting Taylor last year because they failed to link him to criminal acts committed during the war and that crucial evidence against Taylor was no more than hearsay.
"There is nothing in the trial chamber's findings that would have allowed it to find that Charles Taylor knew that specific weapons or ammunition he had some role in providing would be used in a crime as opposed to a lawful purpose," Christopher Gosnell, a lawyer on Taylor's defense team, said on Tuesday.
Noting that there was no way of determining how the bullets would later be used, Gosnell said: "This was not a case of shipping a million machetes to Rwanda."
Taylor, 64, was sentenced to 50 years in prison last year on a conviction of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity during the 11-year war in neighboring Sierra Leone, in which an estimated 50,000 people died by 2002.
The first head of state to be convicted by an international court since the trials of Nazis after World War Two, Taylor was nonetheless acquitted of either ordering or planning atrocities.
Prosecutors disagree. They told Tuesday's appeal hearing that Taylor's involvement went beyond helping the commission of crimes, saying that he should be convicted for the direct commission of war crimes and for instigating them.
They also asked for his prison sentence be raised to 80 years, which they had originally demanded in May 2012.
"He was aware of the crimes (being committed in Sierra Leone) through his own sources, as president of Liberia, and through media reports," Brenda Hollis, head prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, said at the hearing.
Dressed in a dark suit and bright red tie, Taylor leaned forward with hands clasped together, listening attentively in a windowless former basketball court in a suburb of The Hague.
The defense team, presenting their appeal in the afternoon, argued that supplies Taylor had sent to rebels in Sierra Leone were lawful in the context of a bloody civil war.
Over more than a decade of brutal conflict, Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels murdered, raped and mutilated their way across Sierra Leone.
In return for providing arms and ammunition for the conflict, Taylor received "blood diamonds", as the stones from Sierra Leone's conflict zones were known, including a 45-carat diamond and two 25-carat diamonds.
The prosecution argues the relationship was even closer, and that Taylor was in direct charge of the rebels as they terrorized a civilian population.
"What was Charles Taylor's reaction to all these reports of atrocities?" asked Nicholas Koumjian, a member of the prosecution. "To send more ammunition."
But Taylor's defense lawyer said supplying ammunition to rebels fighting in a bloody civil war was not the same as facilitating the commission of crimes.
"If (for example) you give a bullet to the Syrian opposition today, then you can say that there is a possibility or even a likelihood, that one or more of those bullets will be used in the commission of a crime," Gosnell said.
"Is the prosecution saying that the suppliers will be aiding and abetting in the commission of those crimes?"
But Koumjian said Taylor's actions were themselves evidence of his direct involvement in the crimes.
Taylor instructed Sam Bockarie, an RUF commander, to make the attack on the Sierra Leone capital Freetown "fearful", Koumjian said, and knew brutality might ensue. The defense said the evidence Taylor had said this was no more than hearsay.
"He was saying this to the RUF, not to a boy scouts' troop," Koumjian said. "Putting people's heads on sticks. That's what 'make it fearful' meant."
The appeals hearing will continue on Wednesday.
(Editing by Alison Williams)