By MIKE CORDER
LEIDSCHENDAM, Netherlands — An international war crimes court upheld the conviction and 50-year sentence of former Liberian President Charles Taylor for aiding rebels in Sierra Leone, ruling Thursday that his financial, material and tactical support fueled horrendous crimes against civilians.
The appeals chamber of the Special Court for Sierra Leone kept the 65-year-old Taylor’s conviction on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including terrorism, murder, rape and using child soldiers.
Taylor’s conviction in April 2012 was hailed as ushering in a new era of accountability for heads of state. He was the first former head of state convicted by an international war crimes court since World War II.
Wearing a black suit and a gold-colored tie, Taylor showed little emotion while Presiding Judge George Gelaga King read the unanimous verdict of the six-judge panel.
Prosecutor Brenda Hollis said the court’s final ruling “affirms Taylor’s criminal responsibility for grave crimes.”
“He’s caused untold suffering for thousands, if not tens of thousands, of victims in Sierra Leone,” she said at a press conference after the ruling. “Today’s judgment brings some measure of justice for those victims who suffered so horribly.”
Others focused on the future impact of Thursday’s decision.
“Taylor’s conviction sends a powerful message that those at the top can be held to account on the gravest crimes,” said Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch.
Steven Rapp, the ambassador for war crimes issues at the U.S. Department of State and former prosecutor at the Sierra Leone court, said the ruling “sends a clear message to all the world, that when you commit crimes like this, it may not happen overnight, but there will be a day of reckoning.”
The court found Taylor provided crucial aid to rebels in Sierra Leone during that country’s 11-year civil war, which left an estimated 50,000 people dead before its conclusion in 2002.
Thousands more were left mutilated in a conflict that became known for its extreme cruelty, as rival rebel groups hacked off the limbs of their victims and carved their groups’ initials into opponents. The rebels developed gruesome terms for the mutilations, offering victims the choice of “long sleeves” or “short sleeves” – having their hands hacked off or their arms sliced off above the elbow.
Memunatu Kamara, who had her left hand chopped off by rebels in 1999, had traveled to the court in the Netherlands to hear the appeals verdict. She said she felt ill when she first looked at Taylor but “when I saw him convicted, I was feeling good.”
Taylor was convicted not only of aiding and abetting Sierra Leone rebels from his seat of power in neighboring Liberia, but also for actually planning some of the attacks carried out by two Sierra Leone rebel groups – the Revolutionary United Front and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council. In return he was given “blood diamonds” mined by slave laborers in Sierra Leone and gained political influence in volatile West Africa.
Prosecuting Taylor proved how hard it is to bring leaders to justice. He fled into exile in Nigeria after being indicted in 2003 and wasn’t arrested for three years. And while the Sierra Leone court is based in that country’s capital, Taylor’s trial was staged in the Netherlands for fear it could destabilize the region.
Arthur Saye, Charles Taylor’s brother-in-law, who monitored the verdict on television from his shop in Paynesville, Liberia, said he was not surprised at the ruling.
“From day one, my position has been that the trial of Mr. Taylor was orchestrated by the powers that be – the Western powers,” he told The Associated Press. “This was an international conspiracy; so I am not surprised or disappointed” by the verdict.
He added he had spoken by telephone to Taylor’s wife Victoria, who is in the Netherlands.
“I thought she (would be) downhearted, but she was not,” he said. “We are going to put our lives back together.”
Taylor’s lawyer Morris Anyah said outside the courtroom that Taylor himself was disappointed but “he has remained stoic and calm.”
“He expressed his view that the next phase of life is to see how to preserve his contact with his family and ensure that his younger children are provided for,” Anyah said.
In a development that could have a lasting impact on future war crimes cases, Thursday’s ruling clashed with an appeals decision by the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, in which former Serbian Gen. Momcilo Perisic was acquitted of aiding and abetting war crimes.
Judges at the ICTY said in order to aid and abet a crime, a suspect has to have “specifically directed” aid toward committing crimes.
But judges in the Taylor case openly disagreed with that. They said the key to guilt in aiding and abetting a crime is that a suspect’s participation encouraged the commission of crimes and had a substantial effect on the crimes actually being committed – not the particular manner in which a suspect was involved.
Toby Sterling contributed to this story from Leidschendam, Netherlands, and Jonathan Paye-Layleh contributed from Monrovia, Liberia.