JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Former Liberian President Charles Taylor will likely spend the rest of his life in jail after a U.N.-backed court sentenced him to 50 years in prison for aiding and abetting war crimes.
Taylor , 64, is the first former head of state to be convicted by an international court for war crimes since World War II.
He was convicted of helping plan war crimes with Revolutionary United Front rebels in Sierra Leone, trading arms with them in return for so-called blood diamonds. During their 1991-2002 reign of terror, the rebels were known for amputating limbs, raping women and girls, recruiting and using child soldiers and forcing girls and women to become sex slaves.
Taylor was convicted last month on 11 counts, including terrorism, murder, rape, sexual slavery, outrages on personal dignity, conscripting child soldiers, enslavement and pillage. He will serve his sentence in Britain.
Pronouncing sentence in the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague, Judge Richard Lussick said Taylor had never set foot in Sierra Leone but had left a heavy footprint there. He said the effect of Taylor's crimes on families of the victims was "devastating."
"The accused has been found responsible for aiding and abetting, as well as planning, some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history,” the judge said. He said the court found when weighing its sentence that Taylor's abuse of his positions as president and member of the West African regional leadership body ECOWAS was "an aggravating factor of great weight."
Another aggravating factor was his abuse of Sierra Leone for financial gain.
Lussick said that while convictions for aiding and abetting in crimes generally warranted lower prison terms, this was not the case for Taylor, whose leadership role "puts him in a class of his own."
Prosecutors had sought an 80-year sentence to reflect the central role that Taylor played in the Sierra Leone conflict, while his lawyers rejected claims he played a central part and requested a proportionate sentence.
Courtenay Griffiths, one of the defense attorneys, said the sentence in effect meant Taylor would die in prison. His legal team plans to appeal the sentence as excessive.
Chief of the prosecution team, Brenda Hollis, told reporters the prosecution also would study the judgment and decide whether to mount an appeal. She said the sentence brought some measure of justice "for those lucky enough to survive."
"The sentence today does not replace amputated limbs, does not bring back those who have been murdered or forced to become sexual slaves," Hollis said.
Taylor's conviction has been hailed by human rights groups, including Amnesty International, as a sign that heads of state cannot escape prosecution for crimes against humanity. However, many rights groups have called for his prosecution for alleged crimes in Liberia.
Taylor played a key role in other bloody West African conflicts, not least the 1989-95 Liberian civil war, but was only indicted in relation to his role in Sierra Leone.
Addressing the court earlier this month, Taylor said he had acted with honor in Sierra Leone and claimed he had helped end the civil war. "What I did was done with honor," he said. "I was convinced that unless there was peace in Sierra Leone, Liberia would not be able to move forward."
He did not address the court Wednesday.
Taylor stepped down as Liberian leader in 2003 as rebels opposing him pounded the capital, Monrovia. He was granted amnesty in Nigeria, but was arrested trying to flee the country in 2006 after Liberian authorities requested his transfer to the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
He was sent to be tried at The Hague, with fears that a trial in the Sierra Leone capital, Freetown, could spark instability.
-- Robyn Dixon
Photo: Former Liberian President Charles Taylor, center, accused of arming Sierra Leone's rebels who paid him in "blood diamonds," listens to the judge at the opening of the sentencing judgment hearing at the court in The Hague on Wednesday. Credit: Toussaint Kluitters / European Pressphoto Agency.