THE HAGUE – Liberia's former President Charles Taylor, the first African ruler to stand trial for war crimes, took the stand in his own defense on Tuesday, arguing that the case against him was full of misinformation and lies.
Taylor, 61, is charged with 11 counts of instigating murder, rape, mutilation, sexual slavery and conscripting child soldiers during the intertwined wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone in which more than 250,000 people were killed.
I am not guilty of all these charges, Taylor told the three judges at Special Court for Sierra Leone.
Prosecutors, who closed their case in February, say Taylor directed Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in a campaign of terror against civilians, seeking to control neighboring Sierra Leone's diamond mines and destabilize its government to boost his regional influence.
It is quite incredible that such descriptions of me would come about, Taylor responded after his lawyer asked whether he was a terrorist. The prosecution, because of disinformation, misinformation, lies, rumors, would associate me with such titles or descriptions.
Taylor's defense began their case this week, two years after the start of the trial.
I am a father of 14 children, grandchildren, with love for humanity and have fought all my life to do what I thought was right. I resent that characterization of me. It is false, it is malicious.
A confident Taylor, appearing in a dark suit and dark glasses before a packed court, is the first of 249 witnesses that the defense said it will call to the stand. Taylor's testimony is expected to last several weeks.
Prosecutors called 91 witnesses, many of whom provided graphic testimony, before wrapping up their case in February. In often graphic and disturbing detail, witnesses described amputations, murder of children and cannibalism in Sierra Leone.
Courtenay Griffiths, Taylor's lawyer, has said he would not contest the fact that atrocities took place, but said Taylor had no link to them. Instead, Taylor was trying to broker peace in Sierra Leone, his lawyer argues.
Asked by Griffiths whether he ever received diamonds in exchange for arms for the RUF rebels, Taylor said, Never, ever did I receive, whether it is mayonnaise or coffee or whatever jar, any diamonds from the RUF.
It is a lie, a diabolical lie, he added.
Taylor has been on trial in The Hague since June 2007 at facilities provided by the International Criminal Court (ICC). The court is headquartered in Freetown, but the trial is taking place in the Netherlands due to concerns it may trigger violence in Sierra Leone.
Taylor, born in 1948, became Liberia's president in 1997 after a protracted civil war. Before this, he was briefly imprisoned in the United States on charges of embezzling from a previous Liberian government, but escaped from a Massachusetts prison and went on to lead an uprising in Liberia.
Taylor stepped down in 2003 and went into exile in Nigeria, and was later arrested and sent to The Hague in 2006.
(Editing by Louise Ireland)