Judges uphold 50-year term for Sierra Leone war crimes

Case against former president of Liberia seen as watershed for human rights law

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PARIS -- An international panel of appeals judges on Thursday unanimously upheld a 50-year jail sentence against Charles G. Taylor, Liberia's former president, for war crimes and crimes against humanity in a case that had been cast as a watershed for modern human rights law.

In a lengthy summary, read out in a courtroom near The Hague, the judges ruled that Taylor's sentencing had been "fair and reasonable," rejecting the defense appeal for his immediate release and the prosecution's request to extend his jail term to 80 years. Dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and pale gold tie, Taylor sat impassively through the 90-minute hearing.

Taylor was found guilty in April 2012 on all counts of an 11-count indictment alleging war crimes and crimes against humanity relating to his role in aiding murderous rebels who committed atrocities in Sierra Leone, Liberia's northern neighbor, during its civil war in the 1990s. He was accused of fomenting widespread brutality that included murder, rape, use of child soldiers, mutilation of thousands of civilians and mining of diamonds to pay for guns and ammunition.

In May 2012, he was sentenced to 50 years in prison -- the first former head of state convicted by an international tribunal since the Nuremberg trials in Germany after World War II.

Now that the appeals panel of the Special Court for Sierra Leone has reaffirmed his conviction in a courtroom in Leidschendam, the Netherlands, the hunt for Taylor's suspected fortune could resume.

The Taylor case was the last for the court, which handled only war crimes committed in Sierra Leone from 1996 to 2002. Under its rules, victims in Sierra Leone -- particularly thousands who suffered during an attack in 1999 on Freetown, the Sierra Leone capital -- are entitled to seek reparations in national courts. Experts believe that these civil cases could go on for years, because Taylor's widely rumored assets have proved elusive.

Investigators have succeeded in freezing $8 million held by the former president's relatives and associates. But, according to court filings, the tribunal failed to discover the final destination of millions traced through Liberian and other banks while he was in power, and the court's investigators were unable to prove his presumed ownership in a number of companies.

With Taylor claiming that he was "partially indigent," the nations that helped fund the tribunal -- the United States was the largest donor -- have had to cover his legal bills and the broader expenses of a trial that cost more than $20 million.

The ruling is expected to have an effect well beyond the Taylor trial, and it is likely to add fuel to the present controversy over the definition of "aiding and abetting" human rights crimes as applied to senior officials far from the battlefield or crime scenes.

In February, appeals judges at the Yugoslavia tribunal were widely criticized and accused of rewriting customary international law and seemingly protecting the military's interest when they unexpectedly overturned the conviction of the Yugoslav army's former chief, Gen. Momcilo Perisic, who, like Taylor, was far removed from any crime scenes.

The judges ruled that although many atrocities had occurred, there was no evidence that Gen. Perisic had specifically directed any crimes and ordered him released. But at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, whose statute says appeals judges "shall be guided" by appeals decisions of the U.N. tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia, the panel went against the Perisic decision.

The Taylor panel ruled that it was not persuaded by the Perisic case's conclusions because the judges had not provided a clear and detailed analysis of why a commander had to give explicit orders to be held accountable for atrocity crimes under international law. Taylor knew the strategy of the groups he supported and of their intention to commit crimes, but nonetheless provided substantial aid.

The defense had appealed the verdict and sentence on 42 grounds, arguing that the Special Court on Sierra Leone had made errors sufficiently serious to warrant overturning his conviction, the appeals tribunal said in a statement summing up the case. Defense lawyers also argued that the sentence was "manifestly unreasonable."

For its part, the prosecution said the sentence was not "reflective of the inherent gravity of the totality of his criminal conduct and overall culpability" and should be increased to 80 years.

After discussions earlier in the trial, Taylor, 65, had been expected to serve his sentence in a British maximum-security prison, but he is now seeking to be transferred to a jail in Rwanda. Given his age, he will likely spend the rest of his life in prison.

During weeks of testimony, Taylor said he had heard about atrocities in Sierra Leone, but that he would "never, ever" have permitted them.

But the presiding judge at the appeals hearing Thursday, George Gelaga King, who is from Sierra Leone, said Taylor had been fully aware of the crimes being committed by rebel groups he advised and encouraged. "Their primary purpose was to spread terror. Brutal violence was purposely unleashed against civilians with the purpose of making them afraid -- afraid that there would be more violence if they continued to resist," Judge King said.



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