- Associated Press - Thursday, April 26, 2012

LEIDSCHENDAM, NETHERLANDS — In a historic ruling, an international court convicted former Liberian President Charles Taylor on Thursday of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity for supporting notoriously brutal rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone in return for “blood diamonds.”

Taylor is the first head of state convicted by an international court since the post-World War II Nuremberg military tribunal.

“Today is for the people of Sierra Leone who suffered horribly at the hands of Charles Taylor and his proxy forces,” said prosecutor Brenda Hollis. “This judgment brings some measure of justice to the many thousands of victims who paid a terrible price for Mr. Taylor’s crimes.”

Prosecutors and defense lawyers both said they would study the lengthy judgment to see if there are grounds for appeal.

Taylor’s attorney, Courtenay Griffiths, slammed the conviction as based on “tainted and corrupt evidence.” He claimed prosecutors paid for some of the evidence.

Presiding Judge Richard Lussick said the 64-year-old warlord-turned-president provided arms, ammunition, communications equipment and planning to rebels responsible for countless atrocities in the 1991-2002 Sierra Leone civil war and was repaid by the guerrillas in so-called “blood diamonds” mined by slave laborers.

Judge Lussick called the support “sustained and significant.”

Mr. Taylor, the trial chamber unanimously finds you guilty” of 11 charges, including terror, murder, rape and conscripting child soldiers, Judge Lussick told Taylor.

Taylor stood and showed no emotion as Judge Lussick delivered the guilty verdicts at the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

Judge Lussick scheduled a sentencing hearing for May 16 and said the sentence would be announced two weeks later. Taylor will serve his sentence in Britain.

The court does not have maximum sentences or the death penalty. In the past, convicted Sierra Leone rebel leaders have received sentences of up to 52 years.

Human rights activists hailed the convictions as a watershed moment in the fight against impunity for national leaders responsible for atrocities.

Taylor’s conviction sends a powerful message that even those in the highest-level positions can be held to account for grave crimes,” said Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch.

“Not since Nuremberg has an international or hybrid war crimes court issued a judgment against a current or former head of state. This is a victory for Sierra Leonean victims and all those seeking justice when the worst abuses are committed.”

Thousands of survivors of Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war celebrated after learning of the conviction.

Jusu Jarka, who lost both of his arms during the fighting in 1999, was among those closely watching the verdict.

“I am happy that the truth has come out … that Charles Taylor is fully and solely responsible for the crimes committed against the people of Sierra Leone,” he said.

Crowds who had gathered in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, sighed with relief when the conviction was announced.