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Charles Taylor - preacher, warlord, president

Former Liberian leader and war crimes suspect Charles Taylor is on trial in The Hague - the culmination of a lengthy campaign for him to be brought before an international court for allegedly backing rebels in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

Charles Taylor with a traditional dancer sitting at his feet during a ceremony in Monrovia
Charles Taylor believes he is misunderstood

The BBC's Mark Doyle looks back at Charles Taylor's career.

Liberia's former President Charles Taylor is a frustrated showman.

There is nothing this naturally confident man would like more than to strut the African stage playing the flamboyant statesman.

But he is now on trial for alleged war crimes.

The charges relate to his role in the war in neighbouring Sierra Leone where he allegedly backed rebels responsible for widespread atrocities.

The showman has been on display many times.

When he was a rebel in the early 1990s, controlling most of Liberia apart from the capital, he turned up at a West African regional conference in Burkina Faso in full military combat gear.

Dramatic gestures

His equally well protected bodyguards jogged alongside his car from the airport to the centre of the capital, Ouagadougou, in a show of strength and loyalty.

When, as president in 1999, he faced accusations from the United Nations that he was a gun runner and a diamond smuggler, he addressed a mass prayer meeting clothed from head to foot in angelic white.

Troops loyal to Charles Taylor, 1995
Mr Taylor came to power after a brutal armed conflict between rival warlords

The showman, who is also a lay preacher in the Baptist tradition, prostrated himself on the ground and prayed forgiveness before his Lord - although he also denied the charges.

And even when he cannot be seen by his public, the showman finds a stage: throughout the 1990s Mr Taylor conducted a series of dramatic telephone interviews with the BBC's Focus on Africa programme.

The first, from the then-relatively unknown warlord, announced his invasion of Liberia.

In one famous exchange with Focus Editor Robin White a few years later, Mr White suggested that some people thought him little better than a murderer.

Mr Taylor bellowed with a flourish to the effect that "Jesus Christ was accused of being a murderer in his time."

Charles Taylor was born in 1948 to a family of Americo-Liberians, the elite group that grew out of the freed slaves who founded the country in the 19th Century.

For what are suspected to be political reasons - broadening his appeal to the indigenous African majority - Taylor added the African name "Ghankay" in later years, becoming Charles Ghankay Taylor.

Like many Americo-Liberians he studied in the United States.

He returned home shortly after Master Sergeant Samuel Doe mounted Liberia's first successful coup d'etat in 1980.

Rogues' gallery

Mr Taylor landed a plum job in Doe's regime running the General Services Agency, a position that meant controlling much of Liberia's budget.

He later fell out with Doe, who accused him of embezzling almost $1m, and fled back to the US.

TAYLOR TIMELINE
Charles Taylor in The Hague
1989: Launches rebellion in Liberia
1991: RUF rebellion starts in Sierra Leone
1995: Peace deal signed
1997: Elected president
1999: Liberia's Lurd rebels start insurrection to oust Taylor
June 2003: Arrest warrant issued
August 2003: Steps down, goes into exile in Nigeria
March 2006: Arrested, sent to Sierra Leone
June 2007: Trial opens in The Hague

Mr Taylor denied the charges, but ended up in the Plymouth County House of Correction in Massachusetts, detained under a Liberian extradition warrant.

Some reports say he managed to escape the prison by sawing through the bars; others that there was some collusion in his departure from Americans who wanted him to play the role he then proceeded to carve out for himself - overthrowing the corrupt, violent and generally disastrous regime of Samuel Doe.

Mr Taylor's rebellion succeeded partly because of Doe's incompetence. But it was also the fruit of Mr Taylor's building of sometimes surprising alliances.

His friends over the years have included the once-radical Colonel Gaddafi of Libya, the conservative former ruler of Ivory Coast Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the current President of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore, and a rogues' gallery of businessmen, local and foreign, prepared to flout UN disapproval to make money in Liberia.

After winning power militarily, Charles Taylor won elections in 1997.

Although the polls were probably the most democratic the country had seen at the time, Mr Taylor's critics say he bullied and bought the electorate.

Charles Taylor has been married three times and has several children.

In 2005, after he had left power, his then wife Jewel was elected to Liberia's senate.

While president, he used to enjoy table tennis and lawn tennis which he played behind the high walls of his Monrovia residence.

Arrest

He was detained by the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone last year after a period of enforced exile in Nigeria.

Jewel Taylor
Mr Taylor's third ex-wife, Jewel, was elected to Liberia's senate in 2005

His arrest was appropriately dramatic for the showman that he still was - it involved his initial apparent "disappearance" from his residence in Nigeria, a chase across the country with Mr Taylor in a disguised diplomatic car, and his eventual arrest, allegedly with huge sacks of cash, on the Nigeria-Cameroon border.

His first arrival at the courtroom of the Special Court in Freetown was equally dramatic - he turned up there after his exploits in Nigeria in a UN helicopter surrounded by armed UN guards.

He looked dishevelled and unshaven and donned a UN-issue bullet-proof jacket.

But by the time he first appeared in court for the initial hearings in Freetown he was in a sombre European business suit with a classic red tie.

The showman had returned, but in more reflective mood.



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