It is the first time a former African president has been brought to trial to face charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes on a continent notoriously reluctant to judge its own leaders. "The people of Sierra Leone have waited a long time to see this man brought to trial," the chief prosecutor, Desmond de Silva, said.
Mr Taylor, who had been given asylum in Nigeria for the past three years, is accused of exporting Liberia's civil war into neighbouring Sierra Leone between 1991 and 2002.
Dressed in a dark suit and red tie, he pleaded not guilty to 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including sexual slavery and mutilation, over his alleged backing of Sierra Leonean rebels. "I think this is an attempt to continue to divide and rule the people of Liberia and Sierra Leone, so most definitely I am not guilty," he said.
The war in Sierra Leone, which left 50,000 dead, was marked by atrocities against civilians, who were hacked to death or had their limbs amputated by child soldiers high on drugs. Although Mr Taylor is not directly accused of participation, the prosecution says he gave military and financial assistance to Foday Sankoh, the rebel leader of the Revolutionary United Front, in return for diamonds.
Sankoh died in custody in 2003 a few months after his former top lieutenant Sam Bockarie, also indicted, was shot dead in Liberia. The same year, the third rebel leader, Johnny Paul Koroma, was declared dead in mysterious circumstances in Liberia, allegedly murdered.
Mr Taylor, who spent the years in Nigeria under house arrest as part of a peace deal, said he did not recognise the court in Freetown. "Most definitely, I did not and could not have committed these acts against the sister republic of Sierra Leone," he said.
His extradition to Sierra Leone became possible after the election last November of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, who formally approached the Nigerian President Olesegun Obasanjo to ensure his transfer.
He managed to slip out of his guarded residence in Calabar on the eve of his arrest, but was recaptured on the border with Cameroon just before Mr Obasanjo met with President George Bush at the White House last week. There are fears that Mr Taylor's presence in Freetown could trigger unrest, both in Sierra Leone and in Liberia, where Mr Taylor remains an influential figure. Some of his supporters, who call him "Pappy", have threatened violence if he is tried.
The special court, which adjourned yesterday after hearing Mr Taylor's plea, has requested the possible transfer of the trial to The Hague. The UN Security Council is considering a UK-drafted resolution, which has the backing of the US, and is expected to be adopted in the coming days.
Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch said that Mr Taylor's court appearance meant that "perhaps a psychological barrier has been broken in Africa''.
He added: "The next test case for African leaders is that of the former dictator of Chad, Hissène Habré, who is accused of thousands of political killings and systematic torture during his 1982-1990 one-party rule."