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, Courtenay 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.

Associated Press writers Jonathan Paye-Layleh in Monrovia, Liberia; Clarence Roy-Macaulay in Freetown, Sierra Leone; and Eddy Isango in Kinshasa, Congo, contributed to this story.

REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes