In an 11-year conflict which by 2002 left over 50,000 dead and become a byword for gratuitous violence, “short sleeves” was the macabre tag used to distinguish amputations at the elbow from less drastic “long sleeve” cuts at the wrist.
Prosecutors allege Taylor, from his base in neighbouring Liberia, directed and armed the Sierra Leonian rebels and so bears responsibility on 11 counts including murder, mutilation, rape, enslavement, and recruitment of child soldiers.
Whether Taylor is found guilty or not, the verdict will be the first in a court of this kind against a former head of state on serious violations of international law. Yugoslav ex-leader Slobodan Milosevic died in 2006 before the judgment was due in the Yugoslavia war crimes tribunal, also in The Hague
In 2009, Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir became the first sitting head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has ordered his arrest on charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide related to the conflict in Darfur. Bashir rejects the charges.
“The Sierra Leone conflict was brutal, and Charles Taylor was seen as a ‘Big Man’ in the region,” said Elise Keppler, senior counsel at Human Rights Watch of the slowly dwindling club of those ruling with impunity in Africa.
“Regardless of the verdict, this will send a clear signal that people implicated in the worst crimes will face justice no matter how important or powerful they are,” she said. Since Taylor’s indictment in 2003, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a so-called “hybrid” court staffed by both international and Sierra Leonian personnel has produced testimony ranging from the horrific to the titillating.
As prosecutors sought to link Taylor to the locally-mined “blood diamonds” which helped fuel the war, the court heard the bafflement of supermodel Naomi Campbell at the uncut diamonds or “dirty little pebbles” in her words delivered during the night to her hotel room after a 1997 charity dinner with Taylor.
It also featured victims of amputation who displayed remains of mutilated limbs, and graphic accounts of massacres, torture and cannibalism as the prosecution called 91 witnesses whose accounts are included in almost 50,000 pages of transcripts.
Typical is the description by one such witness of the mutilation and execution of his brother by rebels. “They cut off all his 10 fingers,” Patrick Sheriff said. “They put them in (a) cup, then they shot him.”
Another witness described fighters betting on the sex of a pregnant woman’s child. According to the prosecution: “The rebels shot the woman dead, opened her belly, took out the baby... The baby cried and then died.”