Liberia’s ex-leader denounces war crimes charges
THE HAGUE, Netherlands – His combat fatigues were replaced by a dark suit and tie, and the tinted aviator glasses gave the former Liberian leader a haughty air as he took the stand Tuesday to emphatically denounce the war crimes charges against him as “disinformation, misinformation, lies, rumors.”
Charles Taylor, once one of West Africa’s most powerful men, is charged with 11 counts of murder, torture, rape, sexual slavery and the use of child soldiers and terrorism in his role backing rebels in Sierra Leone’s 1991-2002 civil war.
An estimated 500,000 people were the victims of killings, systematic mutilation or other atrocities in that war, with some of the worst crimes committed by child soldiers who were drugged to desensitize them.
The 61-year-old Taylor spoke with the confidence of a practiced politician as he began his defense by portraying himself as a peacemaker rather than the cannibalistic warlord described by prosecutors at the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone.
“I am not guilty of all these charges, not even a minute part of these charges,” he said from the witness stand, raising his voice in anger. “This whole case is a case of deceit, deception and lies.”
Like other deposed leaders before him who faced judgment — Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein — Taylor used his day in court to display devotion to his people and deflect allegations of wrongdoing.
Critics say the courts have been too lenient, giving men who led their countries into mayhem a chance to rewrite history. Many legal experts faulted Milosevic’s judges for letting the Serbian virtually seize control of the trial, which ended prematurely in 2006 when he died of a heart attack.
Prosecutors called 91 witnesses in pressing their case that Taylor provided arms, money and political support to Sierra Leone rebels in exchange for that country’s mineral wealth, encouraging them to terrorize the countryside to suppress any opposition.
Dozens of witnesses, some missing their hands, testified in the past 18 months to the brutality of the rebels. Other witnesses formerly associated with Taylor claimed to have passed weapons and messages to the rebels on Taylor’s orders and transferred illegally mined “blood diamonds” — sometimes in mayonnaise jars — in return.
Immediately addressing the worst accusations, his British attorney, Courtney Griffiths, asked Taylor to respond to charges that he is “everything from a terrorist to a rapist.”
It is “very, very, very unfortunate that the prosecution — because of disinformation, misinformation, lies, rumors — would associate me with such titles or descriptions,” Taylor said, speaking slowly and pausing for emphasis. “I resent that characterization of me. It is false; it is malicious.”
He denied sponsoring the invasion of Sierra Leone, tolerating amputations, plotting the capture of the capital, Freetown, or receiving diamonds.
“People have me eating human beings. How can people bring themselves so low?” he said, dismissing the account of a former bodyguard who claimed to see Taylor eat a human liver.
Taylor’s case has been hailed as a landmark in efforts to hold autocratic leaders responsible for human rights abuses that occurred under their regimes — a theme that President Barack Obama struck earlier this month as he toured Ghana and said, “Africa doesn’t need strongmen. It needs strong institutions.”
The case also may have contributed to an African backlash.
An African Union summit earlier this month rallied behind Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity in Darfur. Al-Bashir has refused to recognize the court or surrender, and the African leaders said they would not arrest and extradite him to The Hague for trial.
Taylor said he worked during his 1997-2003 presidency to rebuild Liberia after a devastating seven-year civil war and to broker a settlement in neighboring Sierra Leone.
“We were just preoccupied with … trying to bring Liberia back to life,” he said. “Unless peace came to Sierra Leone, there was no way Liberia could make it.”
Taylor voiced true outrage only once in his opening day of testimony when he recounted his betrayal by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who gave him sanctuary in 2003 and then acquiesced to his arrest three years later.
Asked what he would do if he were in a closed room with Obasanjo, Taylor said “you would see two presidents in a little tussle.” He added: “I’m damned angry.”
Taylor’s defense team says the prosecution failed to link the former president to the atrocities that undeniably occurred during Sierra Leone’s upheavals.
Guided by Griffiths, Taylor gave a quick sketch of his career, from his first involvement in expatriate Liberian politics as an economics student in the United States to his resignation from the presidency, which he said was forced by “regime-change politics” of President George W. Bush.
Taylor described his 1989 coup against the U.S.-backed regime of Samuel Doe as an effort to bring multiparty democracy and the rule of law to his country, which was founded by former American slaves in the mid-19th century and was governed by an upper class of Liberians of American origins until Doe seized power in 1980.
Taylor’s testimony is expected to last several weeks. The defense has lined up about 200 more witnesses, although it was unclear how many would take the stand.
His appearance was widely broadcast in West Africa, giving Liberians their first chance to hear him since he resigned under international pressure in 2003 and went into exile in Nigeria. He was arrested in 2006, and the trial was moved to The Hague for fear it could provoke violence if staged in Freetown.
The event dominated street discussions and newspaper and radio news headlines in Monrovia. It “disproved the minds of many who had thought he was not going to cooperate,” said Anthony Taylor, sitting in a downtown Monrovia cafe. He is not related to the former leader.
Yomba Sesay said she traveled 300 miles to Freetown to see Taylor testify.
“From the way Charles Taylor is speaking, I do not believe he is the only big man that was involved in the atrocities committed during the war that we in Sierra Leone suffered from,” she said, hoping Taylor would disclose the names of others.
“During the war my brother, who was a police officer and the bread winner of our family, was killed by rebels and today I am suffering,” Sesay said.
Saleh Mwana Milongo, a civil servant who watched the trial at her workplace in Kinshasa, Congo, said Taylor should be judged respectfully.
“It sickened me to see the way Charles was handcuffed and transported. It is as if he was a little child or a highwayman. And yet, he was a head of state,” Milongo said.
Others in Kinshasa listened to the trial on the radio.
“It is good to have this trial but you need to trace it back to those who made him into a war chief and those who supplied him with weapons,” said Hubert Mateke, 67.
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