Taylor lawyers seek to discredit witness

Lawyers for Charles Taylor on Thursday sought to discredit a witness who told the court of the former Liberian president’s ties with Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in Sierra Leone, contending that he was biased against Taylor.

Defence counsel Courtenay Griffiths stressed that the witness, Varmuyan Sherif, who worked for Taylor’s Special Security Service, was once one of Taylor’s sworn enemies who fought in a rival militia.

Taylor—the first former African head of state to face a war-crimes trial—is accused of arming, training and controlling the RUF rebels in Sierra Leone in exchange for diamonds.

The prosecution is relying on so-called “insider witnesses” to establish a link between Taylor and the rebels who committed atrocities on the ground in Sierra Leone.

Sherif, a Liberian in charge of Taylor’s motorcade security, told the court how RUF leaders often came to Monrovia and received instructions, money and weapons from Taylor and his alleged right-hand man, Benjamin Yeaten.

In his cross-examination, Griffiths highlighted the unusual career of the witness—before becoming the deputy director of Taylor’s security services, Sherif was a commander of the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (Ulimo) fighting against Taylor’s National Patriotic Front for Liberia (NPFL).

“Yes, by that time I hated Mr Taylor,” Sherif said, telling the court that repeated NPFL attacks drove him to flee and led to him eventually ending up in a refugee camp in Sierra Leone.

“I had my back against the wall,” he said, and so jointed the Liberian United Democratic Front, the predecessor of Ulimo.

Pressed by Taylor’s lawyer, Sherif said that the Sierra Leonean government “supplied trucks, artillery, RPG’s [anti-tank weapons] arms and ammunition”.

Made a battalion commander after Ulimo entered Liberia from its bases in Sierra Leone, Sherif refused to speak of an invasion by his rebels.

“It was not an invasion, we wanted to go back to Liberia,” he said.

After the Abuja peace agreement in 1996, a new government was formed incorporating all the former warring militias. Sherif, being one of the senior Ulimo commanders, got a high-ranking post in the security services. After Taylor won the elections in 1997, he personally asked Sherif to stay on.

Taylor is the first former African head of state to appear before an international tribunal.
He faces 11 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity including terrorising the civilian population, murder, rape and the use of child soldiers. The former president has pleaded not guilty.

According to the prosecution of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Taylor controlled RUF rebel forces in neighbouring Sierra Leone, who went on a blood diamond-funded rampage of killing, mutilation and rape during the 1991 to 2001 civil war.

About 120 000 people were killed in the conflict, with rebels mutilating thousands more, cutting off arms, legs, ears or noses.—AFP

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