Former Liberian President Charles Taylor (left) waits on Sept. 26, 2013 in the courtroom of the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague before the start of his appeal judgement.Koen van Weel/AFP
An international war crimes court on Thursday upheld the conviction and 50-year sentence of former Liberian President Charles Taylor for aiding rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone, saying his financial, material and tactical support made possible 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.
Taylor, wearing a black suit and gold-colored tie, showed little emotion as he stood while Presiding Judge George Gelaga King read the unanimous verdict of the six-judge panel. He is expected to serve his sentence in a British maximum security prison.
"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. "The Taylor trial, and the Sierra Leone Special Court's work overall, have made a major contribution to justice for brutal crimes committed during Sierra Leone's conflict.''
Steven Rapp, 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 its 11-year civil war that left an estimated 50,000 people dead before its conclusion in 2002.
Thousands more were left mutilated in a conflict that became known for the extreme cruelty of rival rebel groups who gained international notoriety for hacking off the limbs of their victims and carving their groups' initials into opponents. The rebels developed gruesome terms for the mutilations that became their chilling trademark: They would offer their victims the choice of "long sleeves" or "short sleeves" -- having their hands hacked off or their arms sliced off above the elbow.
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 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 the volatile West African region.
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 that 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 is that a suspect's participation encourages the commission of crimes and has a substantial effect on the crimes actually being committed -- not the particular manner in which a suspect is involved.
Taylor's trial was moved from the Special Court of Sierra Leone's headquarters in the capital, Freetown, to the Netherlands because of fears it could destabilize the West African region if held in Sierra Leone.
The Taylor appeals ruling is the final judgment at the court, which indicted 13 of the main architects of the atrocities in Sierra Leone. Two died before trial and one more remains unaccounted for and possibly dead. Another died before hearing a verdict and all the others were tried and convicted.
Al Jazeera and wire services