A UN-backed appeal court on Thursday confirmed Liberian ex-president and warlord Charles Taylor’s 50-year sentence for arming rebels during Sierra Leone’s brutal 1990s civil war.
“The appeals chamber … affirms the sentence of 50 years in prison and orders that the sentence be imposed immediately,” judge George King told the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) in The Hague.
The landmark ruling marks the end of the road for the former west African strongman’s marathon seven-year trial.
Taylor sat impassively as the judgment was read out, wearing a dark suit, golden tie, gold cufflinks and gold-rimmed sunglasses.
He will now most likely spend the rest of his life in a foreign prison, possibly in Britain.
His historic sentence on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity was the first handed down by an international court against a former head of state since the Nazi trials at Nuremberg in 1946.
“The Appeals Chamber is of the opinion that the sentence imposed by the trial chamber is fair in the light of the totality of the crimes committed” by Taylor, King said.
“The defence failed to demonstrate any discernable errors in the trial chamber’s sentencing.”
Taylor, 65, was found guilty last year of supporting rebels from neighbouring Sierra Leone who waged a campaign of terror during a civil war that claimed 120,000 lives between 1991 and 2002, in exchange for “blood diamonds” mined by slave labour.
Arrested and transferred to The Hague in mid-2006, where his case was moved for fear of stirring up divisions at home, Taylor was sentenced in May last year for “some of the most heinous crimes in human history”.
As Liberia’s president from 1997 to 2003, Taylor aided and abetted neighbouring Revolutionary United Front rebels by supplying guns and ammunition during the conflict, known for its mutilations, drugged child soldiers and sex slaves, trial judges found.
Appeals judges confirmed that RUF rebels and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) sought “to achieve military gain at any civilian costs.”
There was a “consistent pattern of crimes against civilians (through) killing, mutilating, raping and burning.”
The rebels “used acts of terror as their primary modus operandi,” and “there is a sufficient causality link between the accused and the commission of the crimes.”
Throughout the trial, Taylor maintained his innocence.
Lawyers argued at an appeal hearing in January that there was no evidence that he knew about crimes committed by Sierra Leone’s brutal rebel forces, nor did he provide logistics, guns and ammunition.
They wanted appeals judges to reverse the conviction and quash the sentence.
The prosecution, which had sought an 80-year jail term for Taylor, had also appealed, saying judges were “unduly lenient”.
“It’s a very good decision. We feel good about,” said Memanatu Kumara, 28, whose left hand was amputated by the RUF in 1999 in Freetown but who came to court for the verdict.
Judge King said he was “not persuaded” by a recent controversial ruling before the Yugoslavia war crimes tribunal (ICTY), also based in the Netherlands.
The ICTY acquitted Yugoslav ex-army chief Momcilo Perisic on appeal, saying they required “specific direction” in the commission of crimes for a conviction.
That verdict worried rights groups as it raised the bar of evidence required to prove aiding and abetting of war crimes.
However, King said the ICTY findings “may perhaps be developed in time,” but did not take them into account in convicting Taylor.
“Upheld today on appeal, Taylor’s conviction sends a powerful message that those at the top can be held to account on the gravest crimes,” Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch said.
A number of headline-grabbing witnesses took the stand during Taylor’s trial including actress Mia Farrow and former supermodel Naomi Campbell, who told of a gift of “dirty diamonds” she received in 1997 after a charity ball hosted by then South African president Nelson Mandela.
Thursday’s hearing almost certainly draws the curtain on Sierra Leone’s special court, set up in 2002 by agreement between Freetown and the United Nations.
One suspect remains wanted but is widely believed to have died.
Additional reporting from Agencies