Verdict due in Charles Taylor war crimes trial
A UN-backed war crimes court in The Hague is to deliver a verdict in the trial of Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president accused of 11 counts of crimes against humanity.
Taylor is known throughout the Western world one of West Africa's most enduring warlords. As a rebel leader he was said to encourage his National Patriotic Front of Liberia fighters to eat the hearts of the men and women they killed.
In Liberia, he is known for his swagger, his charisma, for subsidizing rice prices and for the slogan of his successful 1997 election campaign, "He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I'll still vote for him."
The verdict focuses on alleged crimes in neighbouring Sierra Leone, where Taylor stands accused of arming rebels and masterminding grave human rights abuses during that country's war, which ended in 2002. Taylor has never been tried for involvement in Liberia's conflict.
The 64-year-old is accused of masterminding physical and sexual violence, orchestrating murder, abductions, forced labour and recruiting child soldiers to join the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).
The RUF was a band of rebel fighters notorious for lining their open wounds with cocaine and betting on the gender of unborn babies, then ripping open the bellies of pregnant women to determine the winner.
Taylor, who has never been to Sierra Leone, denies all charges.
The Special Court for Sierra Leone, a UN-backed court created to try rebel leaders in Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, opened Taylor's trial in 2007. Among those already convicted by the court is the senior RUF chief Issa Sesay, sentenced to 52 years behind bars.
Since Taylor's trial opened, 94 witnesses have been called by the prosecution, including the supermodel Naomi Campbell, who testified that she received diamonds after a 1997 dinner with Taylor, the actress Mia Farrow and Nelson Mandela.
21 witnesses were called by the defence, including Taylor himself. A total of 1,520 exhibits were presented. And Taylor, who was permitted conjugal visits, fathered a daughter with his Liberian wife. He also converted to Judaism.
Taylor is not the only one who will be judged. The reputation of international rule of law is also at stake.
In the past 13 years, all but one of the five heads of state called to an international tribunal have been African. If convicted, Taylor will be the first ex-leader to go down since the Nuremberg trials, and the first ever African president to be sentenced by an international court.
The verdict will have profound implications for the future of the 122-member International Criminal Court (ICC), a separate entity from the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The ICC is due to try Laurent Gbagbo, the ex-leader of Cote d'Ivoire, this summer.
The ICC recorded its first ever conviction in March, when it found Congolese warlord Thomas Lubango guilty of war crimes.
Taylor, who ruled Liberia from 1997 until his indictment in 2003, still enjoys some support at home in Liberia. He was a popular president who reduced the cost of living and served during a war in which many people, from all levels of society, dirtied their hands.
Many Liberians feel he is being used as an example, while former members of his cabinet continue to have government positions.
Furthermore, some analysts say that the trial has not resulted in the evidence needed to produce a unanimous verdict.
And many Liberians and Sierra Leoneans complain that Taylor should have been tried on West African soil, not in air-conditioned premises thousands of miles away.
"I was opposed to the idea of trying Taylor outside of West Africa," former child soldier and author Ismael Beah said during a talk in Freetown last week.
"I would have wanted to see it done here, because trying Taylor in The Hague is like a dissociative justice. It is too far away from the people affected," he said.
The verdict falls on the eve of Sierra Leone's Independence Day and will conclude the Special Court for Sierra Leone's mandate.
Whatever the outcome, an appeal is likely, either from the prosecution, in the case of Taylor's acquittal, or from the defence, which has said it would appeal a guilty verdict.
If convicted, Taylor would be sentenced at a later date and transferred to Britain, where he would serve any prison term.