Paul Vallely: On trial for brutalising his country and its neighbour

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For the man right at the very back of the room in the dark suit and the expensive grey tie, the appearance of Naomi Campbell in court in The Hague yesterday must have been a welcome relief. For the past three years the focus in the courtroom has been fairly unremittingly on him. He is Charles Taylor, the man accused of war crimes in Sierra Leone.

To say "war crimes" understates it. Taylor is accused of being responsible for a decade-long slew of killing across West Africa. The deaths of tens of thousands of people – in an orgy of murder, rape and systematic mutilation in which machetes and axes were used to hack the feet or hands from adults, children and even babies – can be traced back to this cuff-linked character, the court alleges.

Even in the grim annals of African history, Charles Ghankay McCarthy Boye Dakphanna Taylor, the small man with a big name, stands out as a grotesque figure.

Taylor is a former president of Liberia. His history there is a bloody one. Born to a wealthy family he was sent to the United States at the age of 24 to Massachusetts to study economics only to become charged with embezzlement. After a successful jailbreak he fled to Libya.

There he received military training under Colonel Gaddafi. He used it to return to Liberia, where he headed an eight-year insurgency which overthrew the government. Some 200,000 people were killed and more than a million forced from their homes in one of the bloodiest conflicts in Africa's history as seven rebel factions fought for control of Liberia's iron, diamonds, timber and rubber.

At the end of the war in 1997 he stood for president on the slogan: "He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him." The voters did, presumably thinking he would be less trouble in the presidential palace than heading a rampaging rebel army in the bush.

Unemployment and illiteracy remained above 75 per cent. He did not invest the country's huge mineral wealth in schools, hospitals, roads or other infrastructure.

But what he did do was back the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone's civil war, who were accused of countless atrocities. The accusation is he supplied arms to the rebels in exchange for diamonds mined in the war zone. Peace campaigners called them "blood diamonds".

The court has heard revolting testimony against Taylor. One of his ex-commanders claimed he ordered the sacrifice of those he thought had betrayed him, then ate their intestines. He is said to have had a pregnant woman buried alive in sand. He has been accused of forcing cannibalism on his soldiers to terrify their enemies.

Taylor's power ended in 2003 when he was overthrown by his vice-president. He fled to Nigeria and the UN's Special Court for Sierra Leone indicted him for crimes against humanity. Three years later Liberia's current President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf requested Taylor's extradition.

His trial began in the International Criminal Court in The Hague in June 2007. It has been a turning point. In the past Africa's corrupt leaders knew that if they were forced from office, they would find safe haven on the continent. The trial of Charles Taylor has signalled an end to that cosy old arrangement. It is another step in Africa's long march to democracy and freedom. If he is convicted he will serve his sentence in Britain.

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