Taylor denies war crimes charges

THE HAGUE: Former Liberian president Charles Taylor called charges of war crimes against him "lies" on Tuesday as he took the stand for the first time at his landmark trial in The Hague.

"This whole case is a case of deceit, deception, lies," the former warlord told the court, rejecting all accusations stemming from the brutal 1991-2001 civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

"I am not guilty of all of these charges, not even a minute part of the charges." Taylor, the first African leader to be tried before an international tribunal, told the judges he had sought to broker peace in Sierra Leone and not fuel war.

He is accused of arming, training and controlling Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in exchange for so-called "blood diamonds." He faces 11 charges for murder, rape, conscripting child soldiers, enslavement and pillaging.

The RUF is blamed for the mutilation of thousands of civilians who had their hands and arms severed in one of the most brutal wars in modern history, which claimed some 120,000 lives. "Quite frankly, I cannot understand how some of these people were brought to the point to tell some of the lies I have heard sitting over there," said Taylor, gesturing to the accused dock from which he had been following the testimony since the trial began in January 2008.

Dressed in a dark grey suit and crisp white shirt with a dotted tie and gold cufflinks, the 61-year-old said he had in fact been involved in attempts by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to get the RUF "to come to the peace table".

"I, Charles Ghankay Taylor never, ever, at any time knowingly assisted (RUF leader) Foday Sankoh in the invasion of Sierra Leone," he said, adding he was "outraged" when he learnt the RUF had invaded the capital Freetown in January 1999.

"Yes, we did hear about certain actions that were going on in Sierra Leone. We heard that people were being killed, women were being raped. We could not understand it. For me, this was unacceptable." Taylor described the act of amputation as "wrong" and dismissed claims he ever received diamonds from the RUF "whether it was in a mayonnaise or coffee or whatever jar", as had been claimed.

Describing himself as a "pure democrat", Taylor said his actions, including his role in the "revolution" that unseated former Liberian leader Samuel Doe, were always motivated by "a desire for democracy and the rule of law." "I fought all my life to do what I think was right in the interests of justice and fair play", he testified.

His trial, he added, was about: "Let's get Taylor." "People have brought themselves so low. Here people have me eating human beings. How can people be so low as to even think such a thing of me?" Taylor became president of Liberia in 1997 after rebels unseated Doe in 1989, but was himself overthrown by a rebellion and agreed to go into exile in 2003.

He was handed over the Special Tribunal for Sierra Leone in 2006 following his arrest in Nigeria. Taylor claimed on Tuesday that the African Union and ECOWAS had decided that any charges against him should be quashed if he agreed to step down as president.

Despite this, Nigeria's then-president Olusegun Obasanjo "constantly reminded me he was under tremendous pressure to hand me over", and eventually did.

"I am damn angry about what Obasanjo did to me," Taylor told the court.

The former warlord's trial is being held in the Netherlands because of fears that his presence in Sierra Leone could destabilise the west African region. His testimony is expected to last several weeks with a final verdict due in about a year's time.

A Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission last week released a damning report on the Liberian civil wars of 1989-2003 and included Taylor on a list of eight warlords it wanted brought to trial for crimes against humanity.