Charles Taylor Trial Starts

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Michael Kooren / Reuters

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor sits in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court

The first witness in the long-postponed trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor wasn't invited to address the alleged atrocities that engendered war crimes charges, to which Taylor has pleaded innocent. Instead, he came to talk about "conflict" or "blood" diamonds. The heart of the prosecution's case is that Taylor terrorized the people of neighboring Sierra Leone in order to appropriate its diamond wealth for his own ends. Taylor is being tried on 11 counts in a special court in The Hague, including murder, rape, mutilation, and conscripting child soldiers in neighboring Sierra Leone.

The former Liberian president looked relaxed as Canadian diamond expert Ian Smillie — one of the authors of a U.N. reports that accuses Taylor of being a gun smuggler — took the stand and told judges why he believed Taylor needed diamonds so badly. "They're very small, they're high value, they're easy to move [and] historically they've held their price very well," explained Smillie. "In the 1990s, the period we're talking about, they were an alternative to hard currency in countries where there was no hard currency or where people wanted to hide the movement of money."

Smillie testified that Sierra Leone has far more "and better quality" diamonds than Liberia. He said that when he met with Taylor in October 2000 as part of the U.N. investigation, Taylor told him that diamonds obtained by the Sierra Leone RUF militia, which Taylor is accused of supporting, probably came through Liberia, but that the President claimed to have had "no control" over the flow of illegal gems. Smillie said Taylor also told him that that "Liberia's name was misused" by diamond-smugglers. In the late 1990s, large numbers of diamonds sold in Antwerp, Belgium, were certified as having come from Liberia when in reality, testified Smillie, there's no way Liberia could have produced so many. Prosecutors claim that the revenue from those diamonds was used to purchase weapons. In support of that, The Hague judges were shown photos of an airplane filled with crates that allegedly contained weapons smuggled from the Ukraine into Liberia, despite a U.N. arms embargo.

For their part, defense lawyers tried to discredit some of Smillie's testimony as gossip and rumor and questioned his status as an expert. They'll continue their cross-examination Tuesday, when court resumes.

Smillie is one of eight experts expected to testify in the coming months, along with former Taylor associates and victims of the militias Taylor allegedly funded in Sierra Leone's often gruesome 10-year civil war. Taylor, who boycotted the start of his trial in June saying it wouldn't be fair, has been receiving about 100,000 U.S. dollars a month from the court for his defense; the court, for its part, in financial straits of its own, continues to search for Taylor's suspected fortune in hopes of being reimbursed. Prosecutors have 144 witnesses lined up; half who are expected to testify in person, and half in writing. They have to prove that Taylor supported the rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone in their terror campaign, in which tens of thousands of people were killed. Charles Taylor doesn't deny the crimes took place; he just says he had nothing to do with them.