Former Liberian leader Charles Taylor has testified before war crimes judges that he was an anti-corruption fighter before ousting the military in a coup to restore democracy.
He says war crimes accusations against him are “disinformation, misinformation, lies, rumors.”
He 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 to 2002 civil war.
Taylor told the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone yesterday that he became a midlevel member of the government after Samuel Doe seized power in a 1980 coup.
He said that he became “very unpopular” when he tried to crack down on routine corrupt practices. He staged his own coup in 1989.
The 61-year-old Taylor spoke on Tuesday 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.
“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.”
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, 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.”
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. His testimony is expected to last several weeks.