LEIDSCHENDAM, Netherlands – Convicted war criminal and former Liberian President Charles Taylor said during his sentencing hearing Wednesday that he sympathizes with victims of the civil war in Sierra Leone he helped foment, and asked judges to render their sentence against him in a spirit of "reconciliation, not retribution."
However, he stopped short of admitting any wrongdoing, apologizing for his actions, or expressing remorse.
In a landmark ruling in April, judges at the Special Court for Sierra Leone found Taylor guilty of 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, and conscripting child soldiers. Judges at the U.N.-backed court said his aid was essential in helping rebels in Sierra Leone continue their bloody rampage during the West African nation's decade-long civil war, which ended in 2002 with more than 50,000 dead.
It was the first time a former head of state had been convicted of war crimes since the aftermath of World War II.
Taylor is due to be sentenced on May 30, with prosecutors demanding an 80-year prison term, and defense lawyers arguing he should at least be given a sentence that leaves him some hope for life after release.
"I express my sadness and deepest sympathy for the atrocities and crimes that were suffered by individuals and families in Sierra Leone," Taylor said. He insisted his actions had actually been done to help stabilize the region and claimed he never knowingly assisted in the commission of crimes.
"What I did...was done with honor," he said. "I was convinced that unless there was peace in Sierra Leone, Liberia would not be able to move forward."
Judges found Taylor helped the rebels obtain weapons in full knowledge they would likely be used to commit terrible crimes, in exchange for payments of "blood diamonds" often obtained by slave labor.
Prosecutors said there was no reason for leniency, given the extreme nature of the crimes, Taylor's "greed" and misuse of his position of power.
"The purposely cruel and savage crimes committed included public executions and amputations of civilians, the display of decapitated heads at checkpoints, the killing and public disembowelment of a civilian whose intestines were then stretched across the road to make a check point, public rapes of women and girls, and people burned alive in their homes," wrote prosecutor Brenda Hollis in a pre-hearing brief.
Defense attorney Courtenay Griffiths argued for a sentence that reflects Taylor's indirect role: he was found guilty only of aiding the rebels, not leading them, as prosecutors originally charged.
He said Taylor's conviction has been "trumpeted...as sending an unequivocal message to world leaders that holding office confers no immunity" from war crimes prosecution. But the reality is that while many Western countries have funded militias that have committed atrocities, no Western leader has ever been indicted by a war crimes tribunal, he said.
The lesson is "if you are a small, weak nation, you may be subject to the full force of international law, whereas if you run a powerful nation you have nothing to fear," Griffiths said.
Taylor added that once Britain and the U.S. decided they wanted him out of power, his conviction was a foregone conclusion. "The conspiracy was born, all systems put into motion, and here I stand today," he said. "I never stood a chance."
Leaked Wikileaks diplomatic cables admitted into evidence appeared to show the U.S. government hoped Taylor would never return to power, but the cables did not prevent his conviction.
Griffiths said the 80 year sentencing demand is "manifestly disproportionate and excessive" for Taylor, who is 64.
In court, Hollis scoffed at that.
She said Taylor's involvement in the crimes was "more pervasive than that of the most senior leaders" of the Sierra Leone rebels who have already been sentenced. The longest sentence so far, 52 years, was handed down to rebel leader Issa Sesay, who testified on Taylor's behalf in 2010.
Taylor fled into exile in Nigeria after being indicted by the court in 2003 and wasn't arrested for three years. While the Sierra Leone court is formally based in that country's capital, Taylor's trial is being staged in Leidschendam, a suburb of The Hague, Netherlands, for fear holding it in West Africa could destabilize the region.