Judges poised to deliver verdicts in Taylor trial

Rebel fighters hacked off Jabati Mambu's right hand more than 13 years ago in Sierra Leone.

This week, Mambu says his wounds may finally be healed.

On Thursday, judges at an international war crimes court will pass judgment on warlord-turned-Liberian president Charles Taylor, who is accused of sponsoring rebels responsible for untold atrocities during Sierra Leone's brutal civil war in return for so-called blood diamonds.

The historic verdicts at the Special Court for Sierra Leone will mark the first time an international tribunal has reached judgment in the trial of a former head of state since judges in Nuremberg convicted Karl Doenitz, a naval officer who briefly led Germany after Adolf Hitler's suicide.

For Mambu, the Taylor verdicts promise closure 10 years since the end of Sierra Leone's civil war, which cost some 50,000 lives.

"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. He said the tribunal is a landmark in efforts to end impunity for leaders who sponsor rebellion.

While Taylor will be the first ex-president since Nuremberg to receive judgment in an international tribunal, meting out justice to national leaders is on the rise as international law has developed in the last 20 years from ad hoc United Nations tribunals to the permanent International Criminal Court.

Ex-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was tried for fomenting the Balkan wars of the 1990s, but he died before the case reached a conclusion. Prosecutors at the same court, the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, 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.

At the International Criminal Court, former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo is in jail awaiting trial for crimes he allegedly committed while clinging to power in his country.

The same court has indicted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir of genocide in Darfur and last year charged Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi with crimes against humanity as he resorted to murdering and persecuting civilians to put down protests against his regime.

"The Special Court's judgment in the Taylor trial will be a watershed moment regardless of the verdict," said Elise Keppler, international justice senior counsel at Human Rights Watch. "Those implicated in the gravest crimes, even at the highest echelons of power, are being held to account."

Prosecutors cast Taylor, 64, as a ruthless leader who as president of neighboring Liberia funneled weapons, ammunition and other equipment to Sierra Leone rebels in return for diamonds mined by slave laborers in Sierra Leone.

The rebels from the Revolutionary United Front and Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, groups notorious for hacking off limbs, noses and lips of their enemies. Most of their surviving leaders already have been convicted and imprisoned by the court.

In seven months on the witness stand testifying in his own defense, Taylor portrayed himself as a statesman and regional peacemaker.

Attempts to link Taylor to blood diamonds generated the trial's most publicized witness — supermodel Naomi Campbell, who testified she had been given diamonds at a party in South Africa, but did not directly link them to Taylor as prosecutors had hoped.

The verdict will end another chapter in the checkered life of Taylor who was born in Liberia, studied economics in the United States, escaped from a Massachusetts jail after being charged with embezzlement, formed a notorious Liberian rebel group and later was elected president in his homeland.

He 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 initially living in exile in Nigeria, he was arrested in 2006 and flown to The Hague for trial. If convicted, he will serve his sentence in Britain.

Taylor was urbane and well-mannered throughout much of his time on trial in The Hague, dressing impeccably in tailored suits, though he occasionally showed flashes of anger under questioning from prosecutors.

The man who indicted Taylor, U.S. lawyer David Crane, believes prosecutors did enough to convict Taylor even though the former president left no paper trial to tie him to crimes.

"One doesn't indict a sitting head of state, who was probably the most powerful warlord in the region at the time, on probable cause," he said. "I'm sure justice will be done and he will be found guilty."

Taylor's British lawyer, Courtenay Griffiths, has repeatedly said the trial is politically motivated, aimed at keeping Taylor out of power in volatile West Africa.

He also dismissed prosecutors' evidence as "hearsay" that would not have been admissible in a British court.

Taylor, meanwhile, awaits the verdicts in his cell in a special international wing of a Dutch jail.

"As with any defendant facing a major verdict in a criminal trial, he is very anxious," Griffiths told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "He is extremely anxious but at the same time he appreciates the political realities of his situation."


Associated Press writer Clarence Roy-Macaulay contributed to this report from Freetown, Sierra Leone.