Charles Taylor takes stand for war crimes defence

Charles Taylor begins his defence on Monday against charges he led rebels in Sierra Leone who murdered, raped and mutilated villagers in a brutal terror campaign during the country’s civil war.

The former Liberian president is accused of commanding and arming the rebels from his presidential palace in Monrovia.

Taylor, the first African head of state to be tried by an international court, has pleaded not guilty to 11 charges including murder, torture, rape, sexual slavery, using child soldiers and spreading terror.

Prosecutors at the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone have called 91 witnesses since January 2007. Now it is Taylor’s turn.

”His case is that he was not involved,” said Taylor’s British lawyer Courtenay Griffiths. ”That he was a peacemaker, not a warmonger.”

Griffiths will deliver his opening statement on Monday and the former president will take the stand on Tuesday for what is expected to be weeks of testimony in his own defence.

Taylor was forced into exile after being indicted in 2003 and was finally arrested in Nigeria three years later. He was sent for trial in The Hague in June 2006 because officials feared staging the case in Sierra Leone could spark further violence.

He boycotted the start of his trial in June 2007 and fired his attorney, holding up proceedings until January 2008 when prosecutors called their first witness.

Witnesses testified about radio exchanges between Taylor and the rebels, arms smuggled from Liberia to Sierra Leone in sacks of rice and diamonds sent back in a mayonnaise jar. One former aide said he saw Taylor eat a human liver.

”We say and have said all along that they are lying,” Griffiths said of the prosecution witnesses.

It is estimated that about a 500 000 people were victims of killings, systematic mutilation and other atrocities in Sierra Leone’s 1991 to 2002 civil war. Some of the worst crimes were carried out by gangs of child soldiers fed drugs to desensitise them to the horror of their actions.

After Taylor, the defence team has a list of more than 200 witnesses, though not all are expected to testify. Among them are former African heads of state and high-ranking UN officials who will testify on his behalf, according to a list that does not name

Griffiths aims to portray Taylor as a peacemaker asked by the 15-member Economic Community of West African States and the United Nations to help halt the atrocities in Sierra Leone.

Dan Saryee, a rights advocate who runs the pro-democracy Liberia Democratic Institute, dismissed the idea.

”Taylor’s war machinery was never a peacekeeping force; how could it go into Sierra Leone to make peace?” Saryee said. ”It is unthinkable.” – Sapa-AP

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