Page last updated at 10:32 GMT, Tuesday, 14 July 2009 11:32 UK

Taylor defiant as testimony begins

By Adam Mynott
BBC News, The Hague

After years of preparing for his trial, Liberia's former president, Charles Taylor, has stood up in court to give evidence at his war crimes trial.

Ex-Liberian President Charles Taylor
Charles Taylor has listened for two years to the prosecution case

This is the first time he has spoken in public since he was brought to The Hague in June 2006 to face charges of terrorism, murder, rape and torture.

For two years he has sat impassively behind his legal team in the Special Court for Sierra Leone, part of the International Criminal Court.

He has listened to a catalogue of horrific testimony supporting the prosecution charges that he masterminded and directed a campaign of terror and atrocity in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s and early this century.

On Tuesday, Charles Taylor, in a dark suit, white shirt and grey tie and wearing tinted spectacles, started by swearing an oath to tell the truth.

He then took his seat in the witness stand in front of the judges.

It is a historic moment - the first time an African head of state has been charged with crimes against humanity, charges he has strenuously denied.

The judges, court officials, barristers from the defence and prosecution teams and a packed public gallery focused on his every utterance.

'Misinformation, disinformation'

Charles Taylor sat down and was asked to give the court his name: Charles Ghankay Taylor, the 21st President of Liberia, and he was asked by the chief defence counsel, Courtenay Griffiths, how he responded to prosecution claims contained in 11 counts which allege that "you are everything from a terrorist to a rapist".

Charles Taylor paused for several moments, then said: "It is quite incredible that such descriptions of me should come about… and unfortunate that the prosecution because of misinformation, disinformation, lies, rumours, would associate me with such descriptions.

A girl in Sierra Leone who had her leg amputated by RUF rebels (2000)
Charles Taylor was asked about amputations in Sierra Leone

"I am none of those, have never been and will never be, whether they think so or not."

This is the start of what will be a lengthy period of testimony by Mr Taylor, anticipated to last several weeks.

Initially he will be led through his defence by his legal team.

Mr Griffiths asked him about what he described as the "signature" of the Sierra Leone conflict - amputations.

Charles Taylor said it was impossible for that to have ever been ordered by him.

He said there had been no evidence from any of the witnesses brought to court to show that such atrocities had been carried out in Liberia.

"I would have never ever accepted that in Liberia and we would have never encouraged that in Sierra Leone," he said.

Mr Taylor was also asked whether he had supplied weapons to the rebel movement, the RUF in Sierra Leone.

He denied that he had given the RUF military assistance except, he said, for a brief period between August 1991 and May 1992 when he said he did supply some weapons and ammunition to RUF soldiers in order to bolster security along the border between Liberia and Sierra Leone.

He said this was limited assistance and ceased completely in May 1992.

The defence has made it clear that its strategy is to show the court that it was impossible for Charles Taylor to have "micro-managed" a rebel operation in a neighbouring country while he was trying to run affairs of state in his country Liberia, which had - as Charles Taylor put it - "problems of its own".

Court delays

The former Liberian president was brought here to The Hague for trial three years ago.

The hearing started just over two years ago and at the time it was expected that the trial might last 12 months, but Charles Taylor initially refused to accept the jurisdiction of the court.

He then dismissed his legal team and the prosecution case has been very lengthy, taking testimony from more than 90 witnesses.

The defence has said it has a list of 249 witnesses they may call to give evidence.

It is very unlikely that all these witnesses will appear, but nonetheless the trial looks as though it may extend well into next year.

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