PARIS — An international panel of appeals judges unanimously upheld a 50-year prison sentence on Thursday given to Charles G. Taylor, the former president of Liberia, for committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in a case cast as a watershed for modern human rights law.
In a lengthy summary read out in a courtroom near The Hague, the judges ruled that Mr. Taylor’s sentencing had been “fair and reasonable,” rejecting a defense appeal for his immediate release and the prosecution’s request that his prison term be extended to 80 years. Mr. Taylor sat impassively through the 90-minute hearing.
Mr. Taylor was found guilty in April 2012 on all counts of an 11-count indictment alleging war crimes and crimes against humanity relating to his role in aiding murderous rebels who committed atrocities in Sierra Leone, one of Liberia’s northern neighbors, during its civil war in the 1990s.
He was accused of fomenting widespread brutality that included murder, rape, the use of child soldiers, the mutilation of thousands of civilians and the mining of diamonds to pay for guns and ammunition.
In May 2012, he was sentenced to 50 years in prison, becoming the first former head of state convicted by an international tribunal since the Nuremberg trials in Germany after World War II.
Now that the appeals panel of the Special Court for Sierra Leone has reaffirmed his conviction in a courtroom in Leidschendam, the Netherlands, the hunt for Mr. Taylor’s suspected fortune could resume.
The Taylor case was the last for the court, which handled only war crimes committed in Sierra Leone from 1996 to 2002. Under its rules, victims in Sierra Leone, particularly thousands who suffered during an attack in 1999 on Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, are entitled to seek reparations in national courts.
Experts believe that these civil cases could go on for years because Mr. Taylor’s widelyrumored assets have proved elusive.
Although investigators have succeeded in freezing $8 million held by his relatives and associates, the tribunal failed to discover the final destination of millions traced through Liberian and other banks while he was in power, according to court filings, and the court’s investigators were unable to prove his presumed ownership in a number of companies.
With Mr. Taylor claiming that he was “partially indigent,” the nations that helped fund the tribunal — the United States was the largest donor — have had to cover his legal bills and the broader expenses of a trial that cost more than $20 million.
The ruling is expected to have an impact well beyond the Taylor trial and is likely to add fuel to the controversy over the definition of “aiding and abetting” human rights crimes as it applies to senior officials who are far from the battlefield or from the scene of a crime. In February, appeals judges at the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia were widely criticized for rewriting customary international law and seemingly protecting the interest of the military when they unexpectedly overturned the conviction of the former chief of the Yugoslav Army, Gen. Momcilo Perisic. Like Mr. Taylor, General Perisic, who had been accused of aiding and abetting war crimes, was far removed from the scenes of the crimes.
At the Yugoslavia tribunal, the judges ruled that although many atrocities had taken place, there was no evidence that General Perisic had specifically directed any crimes, and ordered him released. But at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, whose statute says that its appeals judges “shall be guided” by appellate decisions of the United Nations tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia, the panel went against the Perisic decision.
The Taylor panel ruled that it was not convinced by the conclusions of the Perisic case because the judges had not provided a clear and detailed analysis of why a commander had to issue specific orders to commit crimes in order to be held accountable under international law. Mr. Taylor knew the strategy of the groups he supported and knew of their intention to commit crimes, but nonetheless provided substantial aid, the panel said.
The defense had appealed the verdict and sentence on 42 grounds, arguing that the Special Court for Sierra Leone had made errors sufficiently serious to warrant overturning his conviction, the appeals tribunal said in a statement summing up the case. Defense lawyers also argued that the sentence was “manifestly unreasonable.”
For its part, the prosecution said the sentence did not reflect the gravity of Mr. Taylor’s crimes and should be increased to 80 years.
After discussions earlier in the trial, Mr. Taylor, 65, had been expected to serve his sentence in a British maximum-security prison, but he is now seeking to be transferred to a prison in Rwanda. Given his age, he is likely to spend the rest of his life in prison.
During weeks of testimony, Mr. Taylor said he had heard about atrocities in Sierra Leone but would “never, ever” have permitted them.
But the presiding judge at the appeals hearing on Thursday, George Gelaga King, who is from Sierra Leone, said Mr. Taylor had been fully aware of the crimes being committed by rebel groups he advised and encouraged.
“Their primary purpose was to spread terror,” Judge King said. “Brutal violence was purposely unleashed against civilians with the purpose of making them afraid, afraid that there would be more violence if they continued to resist.”