Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor Takes the Stand at the Hague

Liberia's Taylor takes the stand

18:53, Tuesday July 14, 2009

Three years after his arrest and two years after his war crimes trial began, Charles Taylor has taken the stand.

The first African head of state to be tried by an international court is charged with 11 counts of murder, torture, rape, sexual slavery, using child soldiers and spreading terror.

Prosecutors at the UN-backed court say he backed Sierra Leone rebels to help gain control of the neighbouring country and strip it of its vast mineral wealth.

Some of the 91 witnesses called so far have claimed Taylor shipped weapons to rebels in rice sacks in contravention of an arms embargo and in return got so-called 'blood diamonds' mined by slave labour.

Taylor, 61, has pleaded innocent.

His attorney Courtenay Griffiths said that on Tuesday the former leader would begin what is expected to be several weeks of testimony at the Special Court for Sierra Leone because he wanted to set the record straight.

Griffiths said Taylor will testify about his 'strenuous efforts to bring peace in Sierra Leone'.

He urged the judges to give Taylor a fair hearing, and not to be overwhelmed by the parade of misery presented by the prosecution since the trial opened 18 months ago.

One prosecution witness took the stand with stumps where his hands had been hacked off.

A woman testified that she was forced to carry a sack full of severed heads including those of her children.

One of Taylor's former aides told judges he was with Taylor when the president ate a human liver.

'No one who has seen the procession through this courtroom of hurt human beings reliving the most grotesque trauma would have been unmoved,' Griffiths, who is from Britain, told the three-judge panel.

'We are human too, even while we declare this accused man to be not guilty of the charges he faces.'

Taylor's trial has been hailed as a groundbreaking example of making an autocrat face responsibility for the human rights violations that occurred on his watch.

Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, has refused to answer a summons by the International Criminal Court, which is based in The Hague, to respond to charges of crimes against humanity in Darfur.

Most African leaders have supported al-Bashir in his defiance and refuse to arrest him.

Taylor completed an economics degree in the United States and military training in Libya before rising to power as a rebel warlord in Liberia and being elected president in 1997.

He is accused of supporting the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone, supporting its fight to depose President Joseph Momoh and his successors. Prosecutors say Taylor trained in Libya with the RUF's leader, Foday Sankoh.

About 500,000 people are estimated to have been victims of killings, systematic mutilation and other atrocities in the civil war that lasted until 2002.

Some of the worst crimes were carried out by gangs of child soldiers, who were fed drugs to desensitise them to the horror of their actions.

In an emotional opening statement, Griffiths cast Taylor as a peacemaker who was too busy defending democracy in Liberia to 'micro manage' atrocities committed by rebels during the 1991-2002 civil war in Sierra Leone.

Griffiths said Taylor was not behind the use of children in conflict.

'Child soldiers were not a Charles Taylor invention,' he said.

The former president sat impassively in court wearing a brown double-breasted suit, brown tie and dark glasses.

Since his arrest in 2003, Taylor 'has not said a word in his own defence ... ,' Griffiths said.

'Now he takes the opportunity to put forward his defence, not because in law he has to, but because he feels it is important to set the historical record straight.'

Taylor is being tried in a courtroom rented from the International Criminal Court in The Hague because of fears that trying him in Sierra Leone could spark renewed violence.

Taylor labels Hague case 'lies'

Ex-Liberian President Charles Taylor has dismissed as "lies" the war crimes case against him, as he took the stand for the first time at The Hague.

He denies 11 counts including terrorism, murder, rape and torture, at the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

The 61-year-old is accused of having armed and directed rebel groups from Liberia in order to seize control of Sierra Leone's diamond riches.

Mr Taylor is the first African leader to be tried by an international court.

"It is very, very, very unfortunate that the prosecution, because of disinformation, misinformation, lies, rumours would associate me with such titles or descriptions," he told the packed courtroom.

'Love for humanity'

He denied claims he was involved in atrocities committed by Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels during Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 civil war.
Violation of humanitarian law: Conscripting child soldiers
Crimes against humanity: Terrorising civilians, murder, rape, sexual slavery, enslavement
War crimes: Violence to life and cruel treatment (including hacking off limbs) pillage
Taking the stand for the first time in his two-year trial, he said he had only wanted to bring peace to Sierra Leone.

Mr Taylor, whose testimony is expected to last several weeks, continued: "I am a father of 14 children, grandchildren, with love for humanity, have fought all my life to do what I thought was right in the interests of justice and fair play."

Wearing a dark suit and tinted spectacles, he told his lawyer, Courtenay Griffiths, that the charges were "false" and "malicious".

Mr Taylor denied providing military assistance to the rebels - who were notorious for using machetes to hack the limbs off civilians - or having plotted to invade Sierra Leone with RUF leader Foday Sankoh.

'Diamond-filled jars'

He also denied having been given coffee jars full of blood diamonds by the RUF.

"Never, ever, did I receive whether it is mayonnaise or coffee or whatever jar, never received any diamonds from the RUF. It's a lie, it's a diabolical lie. Never," he said.

1989 Launches rebellion in Liberia
1991 RUF rebellion starts in Sierra Leone
1995 Peace deal signed
1997 Elected president
1999 Liberia's Lurd rebels start insurrection to oust Taylor
June 2003 Arrest warrant issued
August 2003 Steps down, goes into exile in Nigeria
March 2006 Arrested, sent to Sierra Leone
June 2007 Trial opens at Hague
Mr Taylor's legal team began setting out its case on Monday. He is the first of 249 witnesses the defence has said it may call to the stand.
His lawyers say Mr Taylor could not have micro-managed a rebel operation in Sierra Leone while also running affairs of state in Liberia.

The prosecution called 91 witnesses, many of whom provided graphic testimony of amputations, murder of children and cannibalism, before wrapping up its case in February.

Mr Taylor started a civil war in Liberia 1989, before being elected president there in 1997. He was himself overthrown by a rebellion and went into exile in 2003.

After a spell in Nigeria, he was eventually extradited from Liberia in 2006.

The trial at the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone was moved to the Netherlands from Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, amid fears it could create instability in the country and neighbouring Liberia.

A verdict in the case is expected some time next year.

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Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2009/07/14 10:07:24 GMT

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