Taylor (64) was convicted last month of all 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for aiding and abetting Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF) during the country’s brutal 1991-2001 civil war.
In return, the court said, he was paid in diamonds mined by slave labour in areas under control of the rebels, who murdered, raped and kept sex slaves, hacked off limbs and forced children under 15 to fight.
“The accused has been found responsible for aiding and abetting some of the most heinous crimes in human history,” said Special Court for Sierra Leone judge Richard Lussick on Wednesday.
“The trial chamber unanimously sentences you to a single term of imprisonment for 50 years on all counts,” the judge said as he announced the ruling of the court based at Leidschendam, just outside The Hague.
“The trial chamber noticed that the effects of these crimes on the families and society as a whole in Sierra Leone was devastating,” Lussick said in handing down the ruling, the first sentence against a former head of state in an international court since the Nazi trials at Nuremberg in 1946.
Taylor, wearing gold-rimmed glasses and dressed in a dark suit and gold tie, listened with his eyes closed as the judge handed down the sentence, which Taylor’s team, and prosecutors, have two weeks to appeal.
Early this month, chief prosecutor Brenda Hollis argued for 80 years behind bars for Taylor, once one of west Africa’s most powerful men and a driving force behind Sierra Leone’s decade-long war which claimed 120 000 lives.
His defence argued such a sentence would be “excessive”.
Throughout the trial, Taylor himself maintained his innocence and insisted he was instrumental in eventually ending Sierra Leone’s civil war.
He will remain in the UN’s detention unit in the Hague until his appeal procedure is finalised.
Taylor’s sentence will be served in a British prison. London’s offer in 2007 to host Taylor in custody if he was found guilty was part of the deal to put him on trial in the Netherlands-based court.
The trial, which lasted nearly four years, wrapped up in March 2011.
It saw several high-profile witnesses testify, including supermodel Naomi Campbell, who told of a gift of “dirty diamonds” she received in 1997 at a charity ball hosted by South Africa’s then president Nelson Mandela.
Handing down the verdict last month, Lussick stressed that although Taylor had substantial influence over the RUF, including its feared leader Foday Sankoh, this “fell short of command and control” of rebel forces.
Sankoh died in 2003 before he could face trial.
Authorities in Nigeria arrested Taylor in March 2006 as he tried to flee from exile after being forced to quit Liberia three years earlier, under international pressure to end that country’s own civil war.
He was transferred to the Hague in mid-2006 amid security fears should he go on trial in Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown.
Taylor’s sentencing came 66 years after the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg sentenced admiral Karl Donitz to 10 years in jail for his part in Nazi crimes during World War II. Adolf Hitler had appointed Donitz his successor shortly before committing suicide in Berlin in 1945. – AFP