'Lies and Rumors': Liberia's Charles Taylor on the Stand

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Former Liberian President Charles Taylor is the first African leader to be tried before an international tribunal for war crimes

Pulling the microphone toward him, the dapper 61-year-old man in sunglasses creased his forehead, cleared his throat emphatically and introduced himself to the war-crimes court in the Hague: "My name is Dakpenah Dr. Charles Ghankay Taylor, the 21st President of the Republic of Liberia."

Thus began the testimony of Charles Taylor, the reviled warlord and ousted Liberian President, at his landmark trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. He is facing 11 charges relating to the murder, rape, sexual slavery and mutilation of civilians by rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone — or, as the prosecution put it, he's charged with being "everything from terrorist to rapist." Asked to respond to the charges, Taylor issued a forceful denial. "It is very, very, very unfortunate that the prosecution's disinformation, misinformation, lies and rumors would associate me with such titles," he said.

Taylor took the stand on July 14 at the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone for the first time since his trial began 18 months ago. He is accused of arming, training and controlling Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels, who rampaged across the country during its brutal 1991-2001 civil war. Prosecutors allege that Taylor targeted Sierra Leone so he could strip it of its vast mineral wealth, in particular its diamonds. Earlier in the trial, chief prosecutor Stephen Rapp insisted that Taylor was "an exceptional violator of human rights" who steadily provided weapons and support to the RUF in exchange for blood diamonds. Witnesses testified about arms smuggled from Liberia to Sierra Leone in sacks of rice and diamonds sent back in a mayonnaise jar. But Taylor rebutted the claims. "Never, ever did I receive — whether it is [in] mayonnaise or coffee or whatever jar — any diamonds from the RUF," he said. "It is a lie, a diabolical lie."

However, it is the stories of Taylor's sheer brutality that are likely to be the most damning testimony. As many as 250,000 people were killed in the blood-soaked conflict that embroiled Sierra Leone and Liberia, even spreading into Ivory Coast and Guinea. During the course of the trial, the court — sitting in the Hague for fear of stirring up fresh unrest in Sierra Leone and Liberia — was told about how RUF rebels enslaved and mutilated thousands of civilians, who had their hands and arms severed. Some of the worst crimes were carried out by gangs of child soldiers, who were fed drugs to desensitize them to the horror of their actions.

And there were tales of even more grotesque violence, including how opponents and peacekeeping forces were killed, cooked and eaten by Taylor's militia. Last year, the alleged head of Taylor's "Death Squad," Joseph (Zigzag) Marzah, told the court that cannibalism was practiced "to set an example for people to be afraid" and that nothing was done without Taylor's approval. Marzah also revealed that he and Taylor belonged to the same secret religious society and had together eaten human hearts.

As the charges were laid before him on Tuesday, Taylor, the first African leader to be tried before an international tribunal for war crimes, responded with indignant protestations. "I am a father of 14 children, grandchildren, have fought all my life to do what I thought was right in the interests of justice and fair play," he said. "I resent that characterization of me. It is false, it is malicious."

His lawyer, Courtenay Griffiths, had earlier denied that Taylor was an "African Napoleon bent on taking over the subregion," saying instead that he was a "broker of peace." Griffiths does not dispute the horrors of the war but says Taylor was not the heart of darkness directing it. "The case is all about linking the crimes to Mr. Taylor, but the evidence has been riddled with inconsistencies," he said.

Taylor launched a Libyan-funded armed uprising in Liberia in 1989. The ensuing civil war lasted until 1996, and Taylor was elected President the following year. He ruled for six years before heading into exile in Nigeria, where he was eventually arrested. Taylor was sent to the Hague in June 2006, but the trial covers only his role in Sierra Leone.

Taylor's testimony is expected to last six to eight weeks, and a final verdict in the case is likely a year off. If convicted, he would serve his jail sentence — he's facing life imprisonment — in Britain. But even if he is acquitted, it doesn't mean his worries are over. Last week, the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission released a report on the 1989-2003 civil wars. It has a list of eight warlords whom it wants brought to trial for crimes against humanity — and Taylor is on that list.