African leader denies murder, rape, torture – and cannibalism

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor opens his war crimes defence with a trademark swagger

Charles Taylor, the first African leader to stand trial for war crimes, opened his defence in theatrical fashion yesterday, arguing that the case against him was nothing but a concoction of "disinformation, misinformation, lies and rumours".

The former Liberian president is on trial in The Hague, not for atrocities committed during the 14 years of bloody carnage in his own country, but for stoking civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone. He has been charged on 11 counts, including for rape, murder, torture, sexual slavery and recruiting child soldiers.

"People have me eating human beings. How could they sink so low as to think that of me?" the 61-year-old said on the first day of his testimony. "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 in the interests of justice and fair play. I resent that characterisation of me. It is false, it is malicious."

Two years after the trial opened, and after sitting through harrowing testimony from the prosecution's 91 witnesses, Mr Taylor seemed pleased to finally have the stand. "This whole case has been about 'Let's get Taylor'. Haven't they had their pound of flesh yet? I am not guilty of all these charges," he said, "not even a minute part of these charges".

Mr Taylor denied arming the Sierra Leonean rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), when he was president in return for vast quantities of diamonds.

"Never, ever did I receive – whether [in a] mayonnaise or coffee or whatever jar – any diamonds from the RUF," he said. "It is a lie, a diabolical lie."

The defence does not contest the signature amputations, the beheadings and the sexual violence to which the people of Sierra Leone were subjected during the 1991-2002 war. Indeed Mr Taylor's own lawyer, Courtenay Griffiths, this week described the parade of prosecution witnesses as a "procession of hurt human beings reliving the most grotesque trauma".

But the British lawyer will argue that it had nothing to do with Mr Taylor and that far from being an "African Napoleon" as the prosecution contends, the Liberian president was too busy trying to protect democracy and make peace in his own country to have time to micro-manage the conflict next door.

It was a point that Mr Taylor, who introduced himself to the court as the 21st president of Liberia and the reigning chief of all the country's tribes, was keen to hammer home yesterday. "Charles Taylor is supposed to be out there like some little common street thug involving himself in the acquiescence of rape and murder," he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm as he adjusted his gold-rimmed tinted spectacles.

Aside from his opening remarks, which directly addressed the charges against him, Mr Taylor's first day on the stand offered up a bizarre mix of childhood reminiscences and African history lessons.

He stressed his humble origins, the child of a sugar cane farmer who grew up in a mud house without running water, waking up with the crow of the rooster and running barefoot to school. Educating himself was his main goal, he said. He won scholarships to schools in Liberia and then decided to go to university in the US.

"I was dating a girl and this old friend of mine came back from the US, and took my girl from me. And I said 'Oh my God'... That really pushed me," he recounted.

There were rants against Washington for not doing enough for Liberia in the 150 years since the country was founded by freed slaves shipped back to west Africa from the US.

But he contradicted that later when he passionately argued that Africans should solve their own problems and not be subjected to Westerners telling people what to do.

With the defendant having to spell out many of the Liberian names, the courtroom felt like a spelling bee at times – "I'm not sure I got that one right," Mr Taylor said. Keeping a handle on the cast of characters included in his lengthy narrative also proved difficult on occasion: he drew a blank on the name of his paternal grandmother.

Only for one brief moment did he appear overcome – when he testified about how the US had forced him out of office and how former Liberian allies turned against him. Olusegun Obasanjo, the former Nigerian president who offered him exile in 2003 before allowing his arrest in 2006, was singled out with venom. Asked what he would do, if he found himself in a closed room with him now, Mr Taylor said: "You would see two presidents in a little tussle... I'm damned angry."

A verdict in the case is not expected until next year. But campaigners hope the trial will send a powerful message to other leaders around the world that they cannot act with impunity.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
tech
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
life
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions