Judges at an international war crimes tribunal will deliver landmark judgments Thursday in the trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor, who is charged with sponsoring brutal rebel groups in neighbouring Sierra Leone's civil war.
Prosecutors alleged at Taylor's trial that the charismatic war lord-turned elected president funneled arms, ammunition and even mining equipment to rebels in return for blood diamonds and power in the volatile West African region.
Taylor insists he is an innocent victim of neocolonialism and a political process aimed at preventing him from returning to power in Liberia. In seven months testifying in his own defence, he cast himself as a peacemaker and statesman in West Africa.
But prosecutors dispute that and called two vicious rebel groups Taylor's "proxy army." They were notorious for hacking off limbs of their enemies in what became the signature atrocity of Sierra Leone's bloody civil war.
Faces life behind bars
Taylor pleaded not guilty at the Special Court for Sierra Leone to 11 charges including murder, sexual slavery and recruiting child soldiers. He faces a maximum life sentence, to be served in Britain, if convicted.
His trial ended a year ago and judges have been considering their verdicts ever since.
If he is found guilty, Taylor would be the first African head of state convicted by an international court.
He may not be the last. Former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo is also jailed in The Hague awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed as he attempted to cling to power last year after losing a presidential election.
The same court also has indicted Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir on charges including genocide for his regime's brutal crackdown on rebels in Darfur. Al-Bashir remains at large in his country, which does not recognize the ICC.
The verdicts — whatever they are — will be a watershed moment for international justice. The only other head of state convicted by an international tribunal was Karl Doenitz, a naval officer who briefly led Germany after Adolf Hitler's suicide, and who faced justice at Nuremberg.
Elise Keppler, international justice senior counsel at Human Rights Watch, said delivering justice is vital to nations struggling to rebuild in the aftermath of atrocities.
"Sierra Leone and other countries in West Africa have been devastated by horrific human rights abuses. Justice for the worst crimes is a way to bring a new era in Sierra Leone and West Africa and promote a human rights-respecting order," she said.
Ex-Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic was tried at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal for fomenting the Balkan wars of the 1990s, but he suffered a fatal heart attack in his cell before the case reached a conclusion. Prosecutors at the same court are close to wrapping up their case against former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, accused of masterminding atrocities including genocide during Bosnia's 1992-95 war.
The ICC last year indicted Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi with crimes against humanity as he resorted to murdering and persecuting civilians to put down protests against his regime, but he was captured and killed by rebel fighters before he could face a court of law.
Arrested in 2006
Taylor — who once received military training from Gadhafi's regime — was indicted in 2003 on charges including murder, terrorizing civilians, rape, sexual slavery, and recruiting and using child soldiers during the Sierra Leone war that ended in 2002 after costing more than 50,000 lives. He was arrested in 2006 and flown to The Hague for trial.
Taylor's is the final major trial at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which has already convicted eight other rebel leaders.
The court's headquarters and courtroom are in the capital, Freetown, but Taylor's case was moved to The Hague after the UN Security Council voiced fears trying him in Sierra Leone could destabilize the West Africa region.
Jabati Mambu, whose right hand was hacked off by rebels more than 13 years ago attended the start of the trial and can't wait for its conclusion.
"The trial is very important to all victims because it will help to heal our wounds," he told The Associated Press in Freetown, the Sierra Leone capital where he lost his hand.
Former professional boxer and long-time advocate for the wrongly convicted died Sunday in Toronto
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