Leidschendam (Netherlands) (AFP) – A UN-backed court on Thursday hands down its final verdict against Liberian ex-president Charles Taylor, jailed initially for 50 years for arming rebels during Sierra Leone's brutal 1990s civil war.The appeals judges' ruling at the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) marks the end of the road for the former west African strongman's seven-year long trial.
Taylor, 65, was found guilty in 2012 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".
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.
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.
Throughout the trial, Taylor maintained his innocence.
His lawyers in July last year appealed his conviction, saying judges "made systematic errors" in evaluating evidence.
The judges relied on "uncorroborated hearsay evidence as the sole basis for specific incriminating findings of fact," the defence said in its 42 points of appeal.
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 want appeals judges to reverse the conviction and quash the sentence.
The prosecution, which had sought an 80-year jail term for Taylor, has also appealed, saying judges were "unduly lenient".
Legal observers and rights groups said the verdict may be influenced 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 in February, overturning a 27-year sentence for war crimes committed during the bloody Balkans wars of the 1990s.
In Perisic's case, appeals judges found that "specific direction" in the committing of crimes was necessary for a conviction on aiding and abetting to stand -- something Taylor's lawyers argued was not proved in his own trial.
The ICTY ruling "is not binding on the Special Court for Sierra Leone, but may be considered," Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
Should Taylor's appeal succeed, he will walk out of the court a free man, having been held at the UN Detention Unit in The Hague since June 2006.
If it fails, he is likely to spend the rest of his life behind bars, possibly in a British jail.
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.