Disgraced Liberian Leader Stands Trial



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Opening statements were to begin Monday in the United Nations-backed trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor who faces 11 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone's civil war. Prosecutors say Taylor orchestrated war crimes that include mass murder, rape, and the use of child soldiers.

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Liberia's former president, Charles Taylor, is on trial at The Hague. But he is boycotting the opening because he said he would not receive a fair trial. Taylor is the first former African head of state to face war crimes charges. They include mass murder and sexual slavery, as well as the forced recruitment of child soldiers. The 11 charges in all stemmed from a conflict in neighboring Sierra Leone.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: It's taken more than a year for Charles Taylor to come to trial. It was in April last year that the flamboyant and charismatic disgraced Liberian leader first appeared before the International War Crimes Tribunal. He stands accused of exporting Liberia's civil war across the border to its neighbor. Impassive, Charles Taylor listened to the rap sheet, read out at the Special Court for Sierra Leone in the capital Freetown.

Unidentified Woman: The statute, charges - Charles Ghankay Taylor with crimes against humanity and other serious violations of international humanitarian law.

QUIST-ARCTON: Charles Taylor denied the war crimes charges.

Mr. CHARLES TAYLOR (Former President, Liberia): I did not and could not have committed these acts against the sister Republic of Sierra Leone. I think that this is an attempt to the continued to divide the rule of the people of Liberia and Sierra Leone. And so most definitely, I am not guilty.

QUIST-ARCTON: While he was still president of Liberia, Taylor was indicted for supporting, arming and training Revolutionary United Front - RUF - rebels, across the border in Sierra Leone. They were notorious for sowing terror in their wake, keeping young girls as sex slaves, and for the brutal mutilations of their victims during the Sierra Leone conflict in the 1990s. Taylor was said to have masterminded the rebels' movements, as well as using blood diamonds -as they're called - mined in Sierra Leone to fuel civil wars on both sides of the border. The head of Taylor's legal support team in Liberia, John Richardson, backs his claim of innocence.

Mr. JOHN RICHARDSON (Legal Defense Team of Charles Taylor): All of the other indictees of the RUF have on public record made it clear he was not in charge of them. They were their own organization. So we wonder whether this is a legal matter or it's a political trial.

QUIST-ARCTON: Charles Taylor's defense team argues that it needs more time to prepare. It also claims to be at a disadvantage, because the trial was transferred from Sierra Leone to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The move was made for security reasons, because Taylor was thought to be a destabilizing influence in West Africa.

Stephen Rapp, the chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, said that Charles Taylor would get a fair trial.

Mr. STEPHEN RAPP (Chief Prosecutor, Special Court for Sierra Leone): It is absolutely necessary that justice be done, and be seen to be done in this case so at the end of the day, people can be confident in the justice of his verdict - the people of Sierra Leone, the people of the region, the people of the world.

QUIST-ARCTON: The Charles Taylor trial hinges on determining the degree to which he was allegedly involved in helping to start, prolong and deepen the vicious Sierra Leone civil war. That's the challenge for the prosecution, and it's a warning to other African leaders and rebels who are known to have committed atrocities against their people that immunity is no longer an option.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Dakar. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.