LEIDSCHENDAM, Netherlands – International judges sentenced former Liberian President Charles Taylor to 50 years in prison Wednesday, saying he was responsible for "some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history" by arming and supporting Sierra Leone rebels in return for "blood diamonds."
The 64-year-old warlord-turned-president is the first former head of state convicted by an international war crimes court since World War II and judges said they had no precedent when deciding his sentence.
Taylor will serve his sentence in a British jail. His lawyers, however, said they will appeal his convictions and that will likely keep him in a jail in The Hague, Netherlands, for months.
Prosecutor Brenda Hollis also said she was considering an appeal.
"It is important in our view that those responsible for criminal misconduct on a massive scale are not given a volume discount," Hollis said.
The Special Court for Sierra Leone convicted Taylor last month on 11 charges of aiding and abetting the rebels who went on a brutal rampage during that country's decade-long war that ended in 2002 with more than 50,000 dead.
At a small protest outside the court, one man held up a hand-written placard proclaiming: "Blood diamonds are not forever. They come at a cost Taylor."
Taylor showed no emotion as he stood while Lussick handed down what was effectively a life sentence.
"The lives of many more innocent civilians in Sierra Leone were lost or destroyed as a direct result of his actions," Presiding Judge Richard Lussick said.
Prosecutors had asked for an 80-year sentence; Taylor's lawyers urged judges to hand down a sentence that offered him some hope of release before he dies.
Hollis said the sentence would only provide a measure of closure for victims of one of Africa's most savage conflicts.
"The sentence that was imposed today does not replace amputated limbs. It does not bring back those who were murdered," she said. "It does not heal the wounds of those who were victims of sexual violence and does not remove the permanent emotional and psychological and physical scars of those enslaved or recruited as child soldiers."
Lussick said an 80-year sentence would have been excessive as Taylor was convicted of aiding and abetting crimes and not direct involvement.
But the judge added that Taylor was "in a class of his own" compared to others convicted by the United Nations-backed court.
"The special status of Mr. Taylor as a head of state puts him in a different category of offenders for the purpose of sentencing," Lussick said.
Taylor's lead attorney, Courtenay Griffiths, warned that the court's refusal to take into account Taylor's decision to step down from power following his indictment in 2003 when setting his sentence sent a worrying message against the backdrop of ongoing atrocities allegedly being committed by Syrian government forces.
"What lesson does that send to President Assad?" Griffiths said. "Maybe the lesson is: If you are a sitting leader and the international community wants to get rid of you either you get murdered like Col. Gadhafi, or you hang on until the bitter end. I'm not so sure that's the signal this court ought to be transmitting at this particular historical juncture."
At a sentencing hearing earlier this month, Taylor expressed "deepest sympathy" for the suffering of victims of atrocities in Sierra Leone, but insisted he had acted to help stabilize the West Africa region and claimed he never knowingly assisted in the commission of crimes.
"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."
Judges rejected that argument, saying that while he posed as a peacemaker he was covertly funning the flames of conflict by arming rebels in full knowledge they would likely use weapons to commit terrible crimes.
Prosecutors said there was no reason for leniency, given the extreme nature of the crimes, Taylor's "greed" and misuse of his position of power.
"The purposely cruel and savage crimes committed included public executions and amputations of civilians, the display of decapitated heads at checkpoints, the killing and public disembowelment of a civilian whose intestines were then stretched across the road to make a check point, public rapes of women and girls, and people burned alive in their homes," prosecutor Brenda Hollis wrote in a brief appealing for the 80-year sentence.
Taylor stepped down and fled into exile in Nigeria after being indicted by the court in 2003. He was finally arrested and sent to the Netherlands in 2006.
While the Sierra Leone court is based in that country's capital, Freetown, Taylor's trial is being staged in Leidschendam, a suburb of The Hague, for fear holding it in West Africa could destabilize the region.