By Sara Webb
THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Former Liberian President Charles Taylor said on Wednesday witnesses had been threatened and paid to testify against him in a trial that found him guilty of crimes against humanity, and described the international court system as a tool of the West.
Taylor - the first head of state to be found guilty by an international tribunal since the Nazi trials at Nuremberg - told the war crimes court in The Hague that Washington had used the case to achieve regime change rather than justice.
"Witnesses were paid, coerced, and in many cases threatened with prosecution if they did not co-operate," Taylor said at a sentencing hearing where his defense team hopes to minimize a possible 80-year jail term.
Taylor's trial made international headlines, partly because of the grisly accounts of murders and mutilations, many committed by child soldiers, and partly because of Taylor's alleged gift of 'blood diamonds' - gems plundered from Sierra Leone to fund the war - to supermodel Naomi Campbell who was called as a witness for the prosecution.
The first African leader to stand trial for war crimes, Taylor was convicted of aiding and abetting on 11 counts of murder, rape, conscripting child soldiers and sexual slavery during intertwined wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone in which more than 50,000 people were killed.
But he was acquitted of ordering and planning the atrocities.
Wearing a pin-striped suit and a diamond wedding band that glittered under the courtroom lights, the warlord-turned-president lay his gold watch beside the lectern to keep to his assigned 30-minute time limit at the stand.
Taylor said the United States and other powers involved in military actions in Africa and the Middle East were using the court to pursue colonial aims against smaller countries.
"Regime change in Liberia became a policy of the U.S. government," he said. "I never stood a chance."
"Only time will tell how many other African leaders of states will be destroyed," he added and questioned the way his trial had been funded.
"The prosecution received millions of dollars from the United States government outside of the official funding process to the court administration. The prosecution has never fully accounted for how those monies were spent ... who received how much and for what purpose or purposes," he said.
The prosecution has called for Taylor to serve jail terms amounting to 80 years, arguing that his position as president, his level of education and the duration of the conflict are aggravating circumstances.
Taylor's defense asked the court to consider a more lenient sentence, saying 80 years amounted to life for the 64-year-old.
At Wednesday's hearing, chief prosecutor Brenda Hollis described Taylor as a "Janus" - after the Roman god with two faces turned in opposite directions.
"Mr Taylor acted as a two-headed Janus, publicly espousing peace while clandestinely undermining it," Hollis said.
"As one chief said in Sierra Leone, if the roots of a mango tree are cut, the tree will die," she said, describing Taylor as the root which had kept the conflict alive.
Judges are scheduled to sentence Taylor on May 30, after which both sides are likely to lodge appeals. Taylor is due to serve any sentence in a maximum security prison in Britain.
(Reporting by Sara Webb; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)
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