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.