War crimes judges hear Taylor's sentencing pleas
Former Liberian President Charles Taylor looks up to the public gallery as he waits for the start of his sentencing hearing in Leidschendam, near The Hague, Netherlands, Wednesday, May 16, 2012. (AP / Evert-Jan Daniels)
Published Wednesday, May 16, 2012 6:48AM EDT
LEIDSCHENDAM, Netherlands - Former Liberian President Charles Taylor is to address judges personally during the sentencing hearing of his war crimes trial Wednesday, asking for leniency even as he plans to appeal his conviction.
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 in helping rebels across the border 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.
The court found Taylor helped the rebels obtain weapons, knowing they would likely be used to commit terrible crimes, in exchange for payments of "blood diamonds" often obtained by slave labour. It was the first time a former head of state had been convicted for war crimes since the aftermath of World War II.
In pre-hearing briefs, prosecutors demanded an 80-year sentence, saying Taylor made horrific crimes possible.
"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.
Defence attorney Courtenay Griffiths argued for a sentence reflecting Taylor's indirect role: he was found guilty only of aiding the rebels, not leading them as prosecutors charged.
Griffiths said the recommendation is "manifestly disproportionate and excessive" for Taylor, who is 64.
In a pre-hearing brief Griffiths argued that "an appropriate penalty would be a number of years which falls short of what would be in real terms a life sentence."
The sentence is due May 30.
In court, Hollis scoffed at the idea that the 80-year demand was excessive. She said Taylor's involvement in the crimes was "more pervasive than that of the most senior leaders" of the rebels who have already been sentenced. The longest sentence so far, 52 years, was given to rebel leader Issa Sesay, who testified on Taylor's behalf in 2010.
The biggest unknown Wednesday is what to expect from the always impeccably dressed Taylor, who has already proven himself a capable speaker in court. In seven months of testimony in his own defence, he cast himself as a peacemaker and statesman in West Africa. His lawyers said he deserved a lesser sentence for his diplomacy.
But Hollis said Taylor continued to fund rebels privately even as he publicly lobbied for peace in Sierra Leone.
"Mr. Taylor should be given no credit for acting as a two-headed Janus," she said.
During his trial, Taylor insisted he was an innocent victim of neocolonialism and a political process aimed at preventing him from returning to power in Liberia. He listened to Hollis attentively on Wednesday but with little expression, leaning forward, hands clasped.
On Wednesday he may apologize and try to show remorse in hopes of a more lenient sentence. But until now he has maintained his innocence of wrongdoing, and his lawyers plan to appeal the conviction.
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.