THE HAGUE, NETHERLANDS // Former Liberian president Charles Taylor will take the stand today to assert that he was trying to bring peace to Sierra Leone with his actions during a savage civil war that left hundreds of thousands dead or mutilated, his attorney said. 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 the former leader would begin what is expected to be several weeks of testimony at the Special Court for Sierra Leone today because he wants to set the record straight.
Mr 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," Mr 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, which Mr Taylor is accused of supporting in 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, Mr Griffiths cast Taylor as a peacemaker who was too busy defending democracy in Liberia to "micromanage" atrocities committed by rebels during the 1991-2002 civil war in Sierra Leone. Mr 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." The lawyer referred to Liberia's roots as home to freed slaves from the United States and contrasted it with the image of Taylor being flown to the Netherlands "in chains" in June 2006.
Chief Prosecutor Stephen Rapp criticised Mr Griffiths' comments as introducing a racial element to the case. He pointed out that all the victims of crimes in Sierra Leone were Africans. "This effort by the alleged perpetrator to play a sort of racecard is in our view highly inappropriate," he said. 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.
At the court's headquarters in the Sierra Leone capital Freetown, the public galleries of two courtrooms were packed with survivors, students, police and community leaders who watched a live satellite broadcast of the opening statement. In Liberia, civil rights advocate Boakai Jalieba said the case is being closely followed by locals. "We in Liberia have to take keen interest in the trial because the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone had too many similarities; they had some common identities; Liberians were recruited to go to Sierra Leone and Sierra Leoneans fought here," he said.
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 them. * AP