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Former Liberian President Charles Taylor took the stand in his own defense at his war crimes trial Tuesday and told judges the case against him was built on lies and misinformation.
Taylor is charged with 11 counts of murder, torture, rape, sexual slavery, using child soldiers and spreading terror during Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 civil war. He is the first African leader to stand trial for war crimes.
Prosecutors at the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone say he 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.
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.
His attorney Courtenay Griffiths immediately asked him what he thought of the charges that he is "everything from a terrorist to a rapist."
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.
"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," he added. "I resent that characterization of me. It is false, it is malicious."
About 500,000 people are estimated to have been victims of killings, systematic mutilation and other atrocities in Sierra Leone's civil war. Some of the worst crimes were carried out by gangs of child soldiers, who were fed drugs to desensitize them to the horror of their actions.
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.
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.
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 rising to power as a rebel warlord in Liberia and being elected president in 1997.
He is accused of supporting the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone in its fight to depose Sierra Leone 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.
This program aired on July 14, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.
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