Ex-Liberia president says US sought to oust him

AP News
Posted: Nov 10, 2009 11:17 AM

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor clashed with a war crimes trial attorney Tuesday just minutes after she began cross examining him about his repeated denials of responsibility for atrocities by rebels during Sierra Leone's brutal civil war.

Prosecutors at the Special Court for Sierra Leone finally got their chance Tuesday to question Taylor. He spent 13 weeks as a witness in his own defense, rejecting allegations that, from his presidential mansion in Liberia's capital, Monrovia, he armed, trained and commanded rebels who murdered and mutilated thousands of civilians during the 1992-2002 conflict.

The prosecution's American trial attorney, Brenda Hollis, immediately drew an angry response from Taylor when she accused him of trying to evade one of her questions.

"I am answering your question," Taylor snapped at her.

"No, you're not," Hollis shot back.

Presiding judge Richard Lussick then intervened, telling Taylor to "just answer counsel's questions."

The cross-examination lasted just over a half hour before the trial adjourned for the day. But that was time enough for Hollis to outline prosecutors' view that Taylor's denials of responsibility are false, as is his claim that most of the 91 witnesses who testified against him were lying.

Prosecutors called to the stand victims of rebel atrocities and former members of Taylor's inner circle to back up their 11 charges against him, including murder, rape, sexual enslavement and recruiting child soldiers.

"Mr. Taylor, it's true, isn't it, that of all the people who have come before these judges you are the one who has the most reason to lie?" Hollis asked.

Earlier, as he wrapped up his own testimony, Taylor claimed he was indicted for war crimes as part of a U.S. "regime change" plan to gain control of West African oil reserves and questioned the fairness of his trial, telling judges, "I am convicted already."

Taylor has frequently hit out at the United States in sometimes venomous monologues, accusing the country of seeking to overthrow him and of hypocrisy on human rights.

Taylor's epic testimony _ more than 250 hours on the stand _ chronologically reviewed his life, from his mixed parentage and boyhood in Liberia to university in the United States, his leadership of a Liberian rebel movement, presidency and _ in his version _ peace-seeking West African leader.

On Tuesday, Taylor told the three-judge panel Tuesday that Americans believed he was a destabilizing factor in West Africa, a region Washington saw as a possible future source of oil.

Taylor said the U.S. stand was that "we cannot have anyone in Liberia that we don't think is going to dance to our tune."

The American prosecutor for the special tribunal who indicted Taylor, David Crane, rejected his claim.

"The bottom line was we were fulfilling our legal mandate seeking justice for the people of Sierra Leone and West Africa," he said in an e-mail Tuesday. "It had nothing to do with politics or race. This is just a smoke screen to avoid personal criminal liability."

After Crane unsealed the indictment in June 2003, Taylor went into exile in Nigeria. Taylor said Nigeria's then-president Olusegun Obasanjo had assured him the U.N. Security Council would put the indictment on ice if he left Liberia, but said Obasanjo eventually "cracked" under international pressure to give him up.

Taylor denied reports that his 2006 arrest came as he tried to flee Nigeria with millions of dollars in cash.

"It is all lies," he said, telling judges he was only planning a visit to Chad and was carrying around US$50,000 to pay hotel and other bills.

As his testimony concluded, Taylor rejected allegations _ not part of the indictment against him _ that he harbored al-Qaida terrorists while he was in office, calling them yet another U.S. attempt to undermine his administration.

"I am associated with al-Qaida and providing sanctuary in Liberia and the United States government would just overlook it? Never ever," Taylor said. "This shows how desperate they have been to destroy me."

Taylor's is the last trial at the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Eight other rebel leaders have been tried, convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 15 to 52 years.

He accused prosecutors of fabricating the case against him to ensure he met the same fate.

If prosecutors "are allowed to get away with this lie ... I will go to jail for the rest of my life," he said.