15 Jul 2009

Charles Taylor says war crimes charges lies

7:45 am on 15 July 2009

Liberia's former President Charles Taylor, the first African ruler to stand trial for war crimes, has dismissed the charges against him as lies in his first appearance in the witness box at his trial in The Hague.

Mr 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.

Prosecutors, who closed their case in February, say he directed Revolutionary United Front rebels in a campaign of terror against civilians, seeking to control neighbouring Sierra Leone's diamond mines and destabilise its government to boost his regional influence.

The defence began its case this week, two years after the start of the trial.

Mr Taylor told the International Criminal Court he tried to stop war crimes taking place.

"It is quite incredible that such descriptions of me would come about," Taylor responded after his lawyer asked whether he was a terrorist.

"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 characterisation of me. It is false, it is malicious."

249 witnesses

Mr Taylor is the first of 249 witnesses that the defence said it will call to the stand. His testimony is expected to last several weeks.

Prosecutors called 91 witnesses before wrapping up their case in February. 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.

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.