LEIDSCHENDAM, Netherlands — An international war crimes court upheld the conviction and 50-year sentence of former Liberian President Charles Taylor for aiding rebels in neighboring 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 upheld 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 as he stood while Presiding Judge George Gelaga King read the unanimous verdict of the six-judge panel.
"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 onto 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.
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."
Importantly, Thursday's ruling goes against 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 culpability for aiding and abetting a crime was 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.
Associated Press reporter Toby Sterling contributed to this story.