Marlise Simons
and J. David Goodman

LEIDSCHENDAM, NETHERLANDS: Former Liberian President Charles Taylor was sentenced Wednesday to 50 years in prison for his role in atrocities committed in Sierra Leone during its civil war in the 1990s.

The judge presiding over the sentencing in an international criminal court near The Hague said the once-powerful warlord had been found guilty of “aiding and abetting, as well as planning, some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history” and the lengthy prison term underscored Taylor’s position at the top of government during that period.

“Leadership must be carried out by example by the prosecution of crimes, not the commission of crimes,” the judge, Richard Lussick, said in a statement read before the court.

Taylor was the first head of state convicted by an international court since the Nuremberg trials after World War II.

Prosecutors had sought an even longer sentence of 80 years.

If carried out, the term decided Wednesday would probably mean Taylor, 64, will spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Asked to stand as the sentence was read, he looked at the floor.

His legal team said it would appeal.

“The sentence is clearly excessive, clearly disproportionate to his circumstances, his age and his health and does not take into account the fact that he stepped down from office voluntarily,” said Morris Anya, one of the lawyers representing Taylor.

The prosecution said it was considering its own appeal, both to lengthen the sentence and to broaden the responsibility attributed to Taylor for crimes committed under his leadership.

Two rebel commanders tried earlier by the court were handed similar prison sentences of 50 and 52 years respectively, and a prosecutor said Taylor’s overall responsibility was considerably greater. The prosecutor also said Taylor did not freely leave office but was pushed by a rebel offensive and by a delegation of African leaders urging him to stem further bloodshed.

Outside the courthouse, Salamba Silla, who works with victim groups in Sierra Leone, pleaded for help for former child soldiers, orphans and other victims of the country’s war.

“You can see hundreds of them begging on the streets of Freetown,” she said. “Many who suffered horrendously need help to return to the provinces, they think they cannot survive there.”

Ibrahim Sorie, a lawmaker from Sierra Leone who had been seated in the court’s public gallery, said he found the sentence fair.

“It restores our faith in the rule of law, and we see that impunity is ending for top people,” Sorie said.

After more than a year of deliberations, the Special Court for Sierra Leone found Taylor guilty in late April of crimes against humanity and war crimes for his part in fomenting mass 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.