Charles Taylor testifies at his war crimes trial

Taylor is the first African head of state to go on trial for war crimes before the international tribunal.
Former Liberian President Charles Taylor took the stand Tuesday as the first defense witness at his trial on war crimes charges at The Hague in the Netherlands.

Taylor, 61, is accused of fueling a bloody civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone that led to widespread murder, rape, and mutilation. The conflict ended in 2002. He has pleaded not guilty to 11 counts, including murder, sexual slavery, terrorism and torture. In his first statement to the court Tuesday, Taylor responded to accusations that he is a murderer and a terrorist. “It is quite incredible that such descriptions of me would come about. Very, very, very unfortunate that the prosecution — because of this information, misinformation, lies, rumors — would associate me with such titles or descriptions,” he said. “I am none of those, have never been, and will never be, whether they think so or not. “I am a father of 14 children, grandchildren, with love for humanity,” Taylor said. “[I] have fought all my life to do what I thought was right in the interest of justice and fair play. “I resent that characterization of me. It is false, it is malicious, and I stop there.” The war in Sierra Leone, which involved riches from the diamond trade, was fought largely by teenagers who were forced to kill, given addictive drugs to provoke violent behavior, and often instructed to rape and plunder. Taylor is charged with five counts of crimes against humanity, including murder, sexual slavery and violence, and enslavement. He also faces five counts of war crimes, including acts of terrorism and torture, and one count of other serious violations of international humanitarian law.

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The United Nations and the Sierra Leone government established the Special Court for Sierra Leone in 2002. The U.N. decided to move Taylor’s trial from Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, to the Hague last year because of concerns that Taylor’s presence would harm stability and security in the region. The trial opened in June 2007, but Taylor boycotted the first session, saying he could not expect a fair trial and calling the proceedings a “charade.” The prosecution began its case in January 2008 and finished in February this year. Taylor is the first African head of state to go on trial for war crimes before an international tribunal. He was president of Liberia — where he is also blamed for fueling a lengthy civil war — until 2003, when he was forced from office under heavy international pressure, much of it from the United States. He lived in exile in Nigeria until Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo decided, under political pressure, to hand him over to the tribunal. Taylor testified Tuesday that he did not commit the atrocities in Sierra Leone of which he is accused, and said he even thought they were “a little strange” when he heard about them at the time. “We heard that people were getting killed and women were getting killed, and we couldn’t understand it. I couldn’t understand it because we wouldn’t tolerate these things in Liberia,” he said. It would have been “virtually impossible” for him to order anyone — including the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the rebel group in Sierra Leone — to carry out such actions, Taylor said, because he was too occupied with running his own country. “I would have never, never ever permitted such (actions) to continue if I had anything to do with it,” he said. Taylor also denied that he even knew that rebels were amputating people’s hands and feet, a brutal signature of the civil war in Sierra Leone. He said he would have “never encouraged that” in Liberia’s neighbor. Questioning Tuesday came from British lawyer Courtenay Griffiths, who leads Taylor’s defense team. Griffiths asked Taylor whether he ever took diamonds from the rebels in exchange for giving them weapons, and Taylor responded by saying “never.” Griffiths asked the question again, in more detail: “Were you regularly receiving mayonnaise jars full of diamonds from the RUF” “Never, ever did I receive, whether it is mayonnaise or coffee or whatever jar, never received any diamonds from the RUF,” Taylor replied. “It’s a lie. It’s a diabolical lie. Never.” The civil war in diamond-rich Sierra Leone lasted more than 10 years and stood out for its viciousness, even on a continent that has suffered many vicious conflicts. Three former top RUF leaders were convicted this year of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Leonardo DiCaprio movie “Blood Diamond” (2006) is set in Sierra Leone during the civil war, which lasted from March 1991 until January 2002. Despite the country’s diamond wealth, 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.