Former Liberian president Charles Taylor was convicted Thursday by an international tribunal for aiding and abetting rebels who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

Judge Richard Lussick said the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague had unanimously found Taylor guilty of aiding and abetting the commission of a range of crimes.

Taylor was convicted n all 11 charges in the indictment, including terror, murder, rape and conscripting child soldiers.

'This ruling will hopefully be of some solace for those still grieving and still healing.'

—John Baird, Canada's foreign affairs minister

He had pleaded not guilty to all counts, claiming — in seven months of testimony in his own defence — that he was a statesman and peacemaker in West Africa.

Lussick said Taylor gave weapons, ammunition, communications equipment and planning to rebels who committed atrocities during the 1991-2002 civil war that left more than 50,000 dead and countless survivors with emotional and physical scars.

However, Lussick also ruled that while Taylor had been a major influence over one of the rebel groups, prosecutors had failed to prove that Taylor was individually responsible for some of the crimes. He also said the prosecution failed to show that Taylor was part of a joint criminal enterprise.

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Charles Taylor is the highest-ranking leader ever brought to court accused of recruiting child soldiers, like these two seen in 2000 during the conflict in Sierra Leone. (Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP/Getty Images)

Taylor could face a maximum sentence of life in prison, to be served in Great Britain. He has a May 16 hearing, and will learn his sentence on May 30.

The case unfolded over nearly four years, wrapping up after 420 trial days in March 2011. According to the court, more than 1,500 exhibits were admitted into evidence and a total of 115 witnesses testified, including Taylor.

He is the first African head of state convicted by an international court. Karl Doenitz, a naval officer who briefly led Germany after Adolf Hitler committed suicide, was tried at Nuremberg and convicted in 1946. He spent 10 years in prison.

Operation No Living Thing

Speaking to CBC's Chris Hall on Power & Politics with Evan Soloman, Canadian Jeremy Waiser, former special assistant to the prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, called the landmark ruling "a very big day" for thousands of Taylor's war crimes victims.

"The mood was very serious," Waiser said, speaking from The Hague.

"In the judge's words, Taylor was the instigating force in one of the operations called No Living Thing, and the name alone tells you all you probably need to know."

The bloody attack on the capital of Freetown in 1999 involved Taylor's forces disembowling civilians in the streets, raping women in public and burning families alive inside their homes.

"The purpose, in the words of the judges, was to terrorize the civilian population into total submission. If you were watching this from Sierra Leone today, as many were, I think this [judgment] gave at least some small measure of justice," Waiser said.

Taylor can appeal ruling

Both the prosecution and the defence are expected to review the special court's ruling to determine if they should launch an appeal.

Taylor's attorney, Courtenay Griffiths, slammed the conviction as based on "tainted and corrupt evidence." He claimed prosecutors paid for some of the evidence.

Griffiths said Taylor took the verdicts in stride. "Mr. Taylor has always been a stoic individual and he continued to display that stoicism," Griffiths told reporters.

Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, welcomed the judgment against Taylor, but noted that the ex-president can still appeal the ruling, saying his guilt "is not fully established until the end of the judicial process."

"Nevertheless, whatever the final outcome, this is undoubtedly a historic moment in the development of international justice," Pillay said in a statement.

"A former president, who once wielded immense influence in a neighbouring country where tens of thousands of people were killed, mutilated, raped, robbed and repeatedly displaced for years on end, has been arrested, tried in a fair and thorough international procedure, and has now been convicted of very serious crimes," she said.

Pillay also noted that other leaders, including Laurent Gbagbo, the former president of Ivory Coast, and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić, have also been charged with international crimes and are either already on trial or will be soon.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Canada welcomes the unanimous judgment.

"Nothing can undo what was done. This ruling will hopefully be of some solace for those still grieving and still healing," Baird said in a statement released after the ruling.

Baird said Taylor abused his office, and "violated the basic dignity of the men, women and children who were terrorized, oppressed and assaulted."

A spokesperson for Amnesty International praised the ruling, as did Elise Keppler, senior international counsel at Human Rights Watch, who said leaders like Charles Taylor have "for too long lived comfortably above the law."

"Taylor's conviction sends a message to those in power that they can be held to account for grave crimes," Keppler said in a statement.

'Shame on you Charles Taylor'

In Sierra Leone, thousands of people celebrate the conviction, The Associated Press reported.

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Sierra Leonian amputee association chairman Alhaji Jusu Jarka walks outside the Special Court in Freetown on Thursday as Liberian ex-leader Charles Taylor's trial taking place in the Hague was broadcasted inside. (Issouf Sanogo/AFP Photo/Getty Images)

Jusu Jarka, a former Sierra Leone businessman who is now chair of the victims' rights organization the Amputees and War Wounded Association, had his arms amputated in 1999 during the war after he refused to give his daughter to the troops.

He said Thursday he is happy that the court in Holland had found Taylor was "fully and solely responsible for the crimes committed against the people of Sierra Leone."

One sign on display Thursday read: "Shame on you Charles Taylor. Give us your diamonds before going to prison."

Documentary filmmaker Ngardy Conteh, who was born in Sierre Leone, told CBC News she was pleased to hear about the ruling. 

"I think there are many people who are happy to see that justice has been served," she said.

Conteh, who is currently working on a film about an amputee soccer league in the country, said some in Sierra Leone were uninterested in the trial.

"The focus should be on the victims of the war, the amputated and the ones most affected," she said, adding that more resources are needed so people can "move on and healing can happen." 

With files from The Associated Press