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Charles Taylor's blood diamond verdict opens

By Jan Hennop

LEIDSCHENDAM, Netherlands (AFP) - An international court opened on Thursday its judgement hearing for Liberian ex-president Charles Taylor, accused of arming Sierra Leone's rebels who paid him in "blood diamonds".

Dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and red tie, Taylor listened attentively and made notes as judge Richard Lussick started reading a summary of the verdict -- the first against a former head of state by a world court since the Nuremberg trials at the end of World War II.

The verdict was also being screened at the Special Court for Sierra Leone's main headquarters in the west African country's capital Freetown, from where his case was moved in 2006 over security fears.

Taylor, 64, is accused of helping Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels wage a terror campaign during a civil war that claimed 120,000 lives between 1991 and 2001.

The trial being held just outside The Hague, which saw model Naomi Campbell testify she had received diamonds from the flamboyant Taylor, wrapped up in March 2011. If found guilty, Taylor could be sentenced in four to six weeks.

Prosecutors alleged that the RUF paid Taylor with illegally mined so-called blood diamonds worth millions, stuffed into mayonnaise jars.

During the trial, prosecutor Brenda Hollis told the court: "Charles Taylor created, armed, supported and controlled the RUF in a 10-year campaign of terror against the civil population of Sierra Leone."

As president of neighbouring Liberia, he acted as "chief, father and godfather to his proxy rebel forces in Sierra Leone," prosecutors added.

The former warlord has pleaded not guilty to 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, dismissing the allegations as "lies" and claiming to be the victim of a plot by "powerful countries."

During Taylor's trial which began proper on June 4, 2007, some 94 witnesses took the stand for the prosecution and 21 for the defence. Taylor himself testified for 81 hours.

Campbell and actress Mia Farrow gave headline-grabbing evidence in August 2010 about a gift of "dirty" diamonds Taylor gave to Campbell at a charity dinner hosted by then South African president Nelson Mandela in 1997.

Judges also heard gruesome testimony from victims of the Sierra Leone conflict, including a witness who said he pleaded with RUF rebels to cut off his remaining hand so they would spare his toddler son.

Others said Taylor's fighters strung human intestines across roads, removed foetuses from women's wombs and practised cannibalism, while children younger than 15 were enlisted to fight.

One witness said he was present when the Liberian leader ate human liver.

During his own testimony, which began in July 2009, Taylor called the trial a "sham" and denied allegations he ever ate human flesh.

In Freetown, victims who had their limbs butchered during the conflict listened intently as Lussick read his verdict.

"We as victims expect that Taylor will be given 100 years or more in prison," said Al Hadji Jusu Jarka, a former chairman of the Amputees Association, his prosthetic arms folded in his lap.

Jusu Jarka then described how he lost both his arms when rebels held him down on the root of a mango tree and cut off first the left, and then the right, just above the elbow.

Meanwhile in Liberia, police reinforcements were deployed on the streets of the capital Monrovia alongside UN peacekeepers. The government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on Wednesday appealed for calm.

There is still great bitterness in Liberia where atrocities Taylor caused as warlord and president have gone unpunished.

Nigerian authorities arrested Taylor in March 2006 when he tried to flee from exile in Nigeria after stepping down as Liberian president three years earlier in a negotiated end to a civil war in his own country.

He was transferred to the SCSL in Freetown, but in June 2006 a UN Security Council resolution cleared the way for him to be transferred to The Hague, saying his presence in west Africa was an "impediment to stability and a threat to the peace."

The court, set up jointly by the Sierra Leone government and the United Nations, has already convicted eight Sierra Leoneans of war crimes and jailed them for between 15 and 52 years after trials in Freetown.

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