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Last Updated: Friday, 11 January 2008, 02:58 GMT
Taylor faces the past in court

BBC World Affairs Correspondent Mark Doyle, who covered the wars in West Africa in the 1990s, reports from The Hague on the first days of the trial for war crimes of former Liberian President Charles Taylor.

Charles Taylor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone in the Hague, 7 January 2008
Mr Taylor appeared composed on the first day of the trial

Charles Taylor sits to the far right of the judges behind his defence lawyers.

During the first four days of the trial he did not say anything in public.

He entered his not guilty plea back in 2006 in the Sierra Leonean capital Freetown and now seemed content to let his lawyers do the talking.

But if he has not spoken, he has paid considerable attention to the proceedings.

The case was transferred from Freetown to The Hague in The Netherlands for security reasons, although it is still being conducted by the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone.

Mr Taylor has a well-earned reputation as a political escape artist.

Kiss

He has extracted himself from detention in various places, including the United States and Nigeria, and it was felt that a still-politically fragile Sierra Leone was not the place to hold such a high-profile trial.

On the first day, as he sat down for the morning session, he blew a kiss through the thick glass partition that separates the court from the public gallery.

The kiss was aimed at his daughter, who sat in the gallery as close as possible to her father.

But she was separated from him by the glass - and of course by the whole situation.

TAYLOR TIMELINE
1989: Launches rebellion
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

On the first day, dressed in a black suit with a gold coloured tie, gold watch and gold cufflinks, Mr Taylor was very composed, even smiling to himself on occasion.

But on the third day, when the prosecution called one of his former army commanders to testify against him, he was visibly more agitated.

He watched the witness closely and studied the photographic exhibits that were tendered with great care.

He passed copious messages on green slips of notepaper over the shoulder of his lead defence counsel, British Queen's Counsel Courtenay Griffiths.

As a journalist, I would love to have seen what he wrote.

And as a journalist who met Mr Taylor on several occasions when he was president, part of me could not help feeling a bit sorry for him - despite the allegations of appalling misdeeds.

He used to be so powerful, so animated, and so eloquent.

Now he was in the dock, behind that glass, and we could all stare at him like an exhibit in a giant goldfish bowl.

The former Liberian leader is charged with 11 counts of Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes - including murder, rape, mutilation and terrorising the population.

It is not suggested that he did these things personally, but that he had a command role over the Sierra Leonean rebels of the Revolutionary United Front, RUF.

Blood diamonds

The RUF committed widespread atrocities in Sierra Leone throughout the 1990s. During the war I saw many of the victims of these atrocities.

These included the rebels' trademark "amputations" - the hacking off of limbs to sow terror among the population.

The first prosecution witness, Canadian "blood diamond" expert Ian Smilie, said the creation of an atmosphere of terror among civilians was in part deliberately designed to allow the RUF to mine diamonds in the rich gem fields in the east of Sierra Leone without a potentially troublesome population disturbing them.

The diamond testimony was important because it is alleged that Mr Taylor used smuggled Sierra Leonean diamonds to finance the rebels.

The defence tried to undermine Mr Smilie's testimony by submitting that he was not a real expert on diamonds.

Sierra Leone warlord, Sam Bockarie
One witness spoke about an alleged meeting with Sam Bockarie

But the prosecution dismissed this, saying that Mr Smilie was one of the world's top authorities on the subject of blood diamonds.

The next prosecution witness was a rural pastor, the Reverend Alex Tamba Teh. He attested to numerous atrocities allegedly committed by the RUF.

The Reverend Teh said he saw a rebel commander called "Rocky" commit the premeditated mass murder, by machine gun, of a large number of unnamed civilian men.

And he then described how a civilian boy was dismembered by the RUF - both hands and feet were chopped off after being placed on a log - and how the boy's torso tossed in a toilet pit.

The defence objected to the admission by the court of this type of evidence.

Courtenay Griffiths QC told me during a break in proceedings that such evidence was playing to the heartstrings of the world and that it was unnecessary to make people live through these traumatic events again.

"It's not contested that atrocities were committed," he said. "But this is not what this trial is about."

He said his client Mr Taylor was contesting the main charge that he backed the RUF - and that was what the prosecution should concentrate on.

'Mosquito' link

But the panel of judges - presided by Justice Julia Sebutinde from Uganda - admitted the atrocity evidence, saying they would consider its "weight" later.

The most substantial prosecution testimony in the first few days concerning the main charge - that Mr Taylor backed the rebels - came from one of the former Liberian leader's army commanders, Varmunyan Sheriff.

Mr Varmunyan alleged, in considerable detail, that he was given a mission by Mr Taylor in 1998 to visit the then Sierra Leonean rebel field commander Sam Bockarie - better known in West Africa by his nom de guerre "Mosquito" - at his base in Buedu, eastern Sierra Leone.

Special Court for Sierra Leone
The court was transferred from Freetown for security reasons

His mission, he told the court, was to persuade Mosquito to come to the Liberian capital Monrovia for a meeting with Mr Taylor.

Mr Varmunyan, who says he rose to become chief of staff of the Liberian army, says that at first Mosquito did not appear to trust whether he was indeed an envoy of Mr Taylor.

So Mosquito led him to a radio room in the rebel bush headquarters where, according to Mr Varmunyan's testimony, Mosquito contacted the Executive Mansion - or presidential offices of Mr Taylor - in Monrovia.

Mosquito satisfied himself that Mr Varmunyan was indeed Mr Taylor's envoy and within hours the two men were en route with an armed convoy by road and bush track heading for Monrovia.

The meeting between Mr Taylor and Mosquito subsequently took place, Mr Varmunyan alleged.

Atrocities

After that meeting, Mr Varmunyan said, Mosquito personally showed him a sum of US dollars and a satellite phone which Mr Taylor had given him "to complete his mission".

Mr Varmunyan said Mosquito did not say what that mission was.

But it is widely known that less than a year later the rebels attacked the Sierra Leone capital, committing widespread atrocities against civilians.

The war was only resolved a year or two after that, when British troops, acting broadly in liaison with a United Nations peacekeeping force, defeated the rebels.

In further allegations about Mr Taylor's links to the rebels Mr Varmunyan alleged that, on Mr Taylor's orders, he ran guns and ammunition to the RUF.

CHARLES TAYLOR CHARGES
Acts of terrorism (WC)
Murder (CAH)
Violence to life, in particular murder (WC)
Rape (CAH)
Sexual slavery and violence (CAH)
Outrages upon personal dignity (WC)
Violence to life, in particular cruel treatment (WC)
Other inhumane acts (CAH)
Use of child soldiers (VIHL)
Enslavement (CAH)
Pillage (WC)

CAH: Crime against humanity
WC: War crime
VIHL: Violation of international humanitarian law

He also claimed that Mr Taylor set up a "Guest House" for the RUF near the former president's residence in Monrovia.

The defence then cross-examined Mr Varmunyan.

The questions and answers began to paint a picture that was wider and far more complex than the simpler one advanced by the prosecution of Mr Taylor's support for the RUF.

Courtenay Griffiths QC reminded the court that before Mr Varmunyan joined Mr Taylor's forces he had been a commander for a Liberian rebel group, known by its acronym ULIMO, which had been fighting Mr Taylor.

Mr Griffiths extracted from Mr Varmunyan that ULIMO had been armed and backed by the government of Sierra Leone.

The defence seemed to be working towards describing a scenario of proxy wars fought between Liberia and Sierra Leone through rebel groups.

But the defence - and prosecution - strategies will only become clear when the first few days of evidence days turn into weeks and months.

Blood, smoke and mirrors

The trial is expected to last at least a year.

The fourth day ended on a dramatic note.

Still cross-examining Mr Varmunyan, Mr Griffiths appeared to become frustrated when the witness could not remember some details.

"My head is not a computer," Mr Varmunyan protested, saying he could not recall every detail of events which happened many years ago.

"You've said that before," said Mr Griffiths. "Were you coached to say that when confronted by a big bad defence attorney? Were you coached?"

File picture of an amputee victim of Sierra Leone's civil war
Rebels carried out trademark amputations during the war

Mr Varmunyan said he had not been "coached" (or advised by the prosecution what to say).

Then the presiding judge, Justice Julia Sebutinde, noted that there was just five minutes to go before the scheduled end of the fourth day's court session.

She asked Mr Griffiths if he would like to stop now.

Mr Griffiths said he had just one area to cover and he thought he could cover it in five minutes; he would try.

Justice Sebutinde agreed that he should do so.

The British lawyer then suggested to Mr Varmunyan that he, the witness, had not been as senior a commander, or as close to Mr Taylor, as he had claimed.

"That is not true," Mr Varmunyan replied angrily, as the atmosphere in the rather sterile modern courtroom became charged.

"Your Honour," said Mr Griffiths, addressing Justice Sebutinde. "Since we suggest that this man is lying," this area of questioning would now clearly take more than five minutes, so he would leave it there for the day.

We may never know, of course, if this dramatic end to the fourth day was planned by the defence.

But the incident raised the stakes.

And it would seem appropriate, in a way, if the court case against Mr Taylor was as dramatic as the events on the ground that it aims to describe.

The wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia were full of blood, smoke and mirrors.

The case against Charles Ghankay Taylor continues.

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