THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Former Liberian President Charles Taylor testified at his war crimes trial Tuesday that the case against him was built on lies and misinformation, and he denied he had commanded and armed rebels who killed and tortured tens of thousands of civilians.
Taylor, the first African leader to stand trial for war crimes, is charged with 11 counts of murder, torture, rape, sexual slavery and the use of child soldiers and terrorism during Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 civil war.
An estimated 500,000 were the victims of killings, systematic mutilation and other atrocities during that war, with some of the worst crimes carried out by child soldiers who were drugged to desensitize them to the horror of their actions.
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, asked by his attorney what he thought of the charges.
"I am a father of 14 children, grandchildren, have fought all my life to do what I thought was right in the interests of justice and fair play," Taylor told the court. "I resent that characterization of me. It is false, it is malicious," he added.
Wearing a gray double-breasted suit and dark glasses, Taylor spoke confidently as he introduced himself to the three-judge panel as the 21st president of the Republic of Liberia. It was his first time on the witness stand.
Prosecutors at the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone say Taylor led and armed rebels to help gain control of the West African nation and strip it of its vast mineral wealth, particularly so-called "blood diamonds" mined using slave labor.
But Taylor said the case was aimed at removing him from power.
"This whole case has been about let's get Taylor," he said. "Haven't they had their pound of flesh yet? I am not guilty of all of these charges."
Taylor's case has been hailed as a groundbreaking sign that the international community will hold autocrats responsible for human rights violations that occurred under their watch.
However, getting such leaders to court is not easy.
The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on charges of crimes against humanity in Darfur, but he refuses to recognize the court. Most African leaders have supported al-Bashir in his defiance and refuse to arrest him.
Anneke Galama of Fatal Transactions, a nongovernment group that lobbies for the fair distribution of profits from Africa's natural resources, said the case also was a landmark in the fight against conflict diamonds.
"The Taylor process shows we don't allow diamonds any more as a way to finance violence and human rights abuses," she said.
Taylor's testimony aims to persuade judges that the 91 prosecution witnesses called since January 2008 were lying.
Some of those witnesses claimed Taylor shipped weapons to rebels in rice sacks in contravention of an arms embargo and in return got diamonds smuggled out of mines in Sierra Leone in mayonnaise jars.
Taylor flatly denied that allegation.
"Never, ever did I receive — whether it is mayonnaise or coffee or whatever jar — any diamonds from the RUF," he said, referring to the Revolutionary United Front rebel group he allegedly supported. "It is a lie, a diabolical lie."
Griffiths said Monday that Taylor will testify about his "strenuous efforts to bring peace in Sierra Leone."
Taylor completed an economics degree in the United States and military training in Libya before leading a revolutionary force into Liberia in 1989.
A year later, then-President Samuel Doe, whose regime also was accused of widespread rights abuses, was tortured to death by forces loyal to Prince Johnson, a rival of Taylor's who is now a Liberian senator.
"We launched the revolution to bring about stability in the country," Taylor told judges.
But Doe's slaying plunged Liberia deeper into factional fighting that lasted until shortly before Taylor was elected president in 1997.
He is accused of supporting the RUF in Sierra Leone in its fight to depose President Joseph Momoh and his successors. Prosecutors say Taylor trained in Libya with the RUF's leader, Foday Sankoh.
But Taylor said he never plotted with Sankoh to invade "that friendly country," Sierra Leone. He also denied ever ordering rebels to hack off the hands of their enemies — the signature atrocity of the Sierra Leone conflict.
"It is wrong. It never happened in Liberia, I would never ever have accepted that in Liberia and we would never have encouraged that in Sierra Leone," he said.