Liberia's ex-leader resumes defence

THE HAGUE: Charles Taylor retraced his rise to power in Liberia to war crimes judges Wednesday, casting himself as an anti-corruption fighter in his army-ruled nation before ousting the military in a coup to restore democracy.

Taylor 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. He has denounced the accusations against him as "disinformation, misinformation, lies, rumors."

In his second day on the stand, Taylor told the Special Court for Sierra Leone he became a midlevel member of the government after Samuel Doe seized power in a bloody 1980 coup.

Taylor, who is alleged to have siphoned millions of dollars into his personal bank accounts when he became Liberia's president, said he took action to rein in rampant corruption among Doe's ministers and aides.

"That made me very unpopular," Taylor said.

His unpopularity led to allegations that he embezzled $900,000, Taylor said, while categorically denying the claim.

Taylor fled Liberia to the United States in 1983. He said he left out of fear for his life under the increasingly autocratic Doe regime and not because of the embezzlement allegations.

While he was out of the country, a former close friend, Gen. Thomas Quiwonkpa, led a coup in 1985, but was killed and then eaten by troops loyal to Doe, Taylor said.

In his opening day of testimony Tuesday, Taylor said he launched his own coup in 1989 to bring multiparty democracy and the rule of law to Liberia.

Taylor's British lawyer, Courtenay Griffiths, is leading his client through a reconstruction of his life and the circumstances of his 1997-2003 presidency to draw a picture of a peacemaker rather than the cannibalistic warlord described by prosecutors at the U.N.-backed court.

His testimony is expected to take several weeks.

An estimated 500,000 people were the victims of killings, systematic mutilation or other atrocities in Sierra Leone's civil war, with some of the worst crimes committed by drugged child soldiers.

"I am not guilty of all these charges," Taylor told the court Tuesday.

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 about 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" 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."