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Liberia's Taylor to take stand in war crimes case

12/07/2009 - 22:38

By Reed Stevenson

THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The defence for Liberia's former President Charles Taylor, on trial for war crimes, is expected to argue he was trying to broker peace rather than foment violence during the 1991-2002 civil war in Sierra Leone.

Taylor, 61, will be the defence's first witness as it begins arguments on Monday and is expected to take the stand for several weeks beginning on Tuesday. He has pleaded not guilty to 11 counts at the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

He is charged with instigating murder, rape, mutilation, conscripting child soldiers and sexual slavery during the intertwined wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone in which more than 250,000 people were killed.

Courtenay Griffiths, Taylor's lawyer, has argued he was trying to broker peace and should be acquitted because there was no evidence he planned or instigated atrocities in Sierra Leone.

Prosecutors, who closed their case in February, say Taylor directed the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in a campaign of terror against civilians, seeking to control Sierra Leone's diamond mines and destabilise its government to boost his regional influence.

"We were very pleased by the testimony that was presented and the breadth and strength of it," said Stephen Rapp, prosecutor at the United Nations-backed court for Sierra Leone, ahead of the defence trial.

Taylor has been on trial in The Hague since June 2007 at facilities provided by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The court is headquartered in Freetown, but the trial is taking place in the Netherlands due to concerns it may trigger violence in Sierra Leone.

In May, judges at the Special Court for Sierra Leone ruled against a defence request to acquit Taylor of war crimes charges, saying the prosecution had produced enough evidence supporting a conviction.

Judge Richard Lussick has stressed, however, that the ruling does not mean Taylor would be convicted.

"Charles Taylor's trial gives victims of heinous abuses in Sierra Leone an important opportunity to see justice done," Elise Keppler, senior counsel with Human Rights, said in a statement.

"A vigorous defence is key to ensuring a fair, credible trial."

Even among Africa's horrific wars, the fighting in Sierra Leone stood out for its exceptional brutality -- casual murder, mass rapes, the hacking of limbs from civilians and the press ganging of child soldiers as young as eight.

(Editing by Sophie Hares)


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