, THE HAGUE, Jul 11 – Liberia’s former president Charles Taylor will take the stand next week to defend himself on 11 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity arising from the 1991-2001 civil war in Sierra Leone.
Taylor denies all the charges, including murder, rape, conscripting child soldiers, enslavement and pillaging. About 120,000 people were killed in the war, with rebels mutilating thousands more — cutting off arms, legs, ears and noses.
Taylor "will be challenging the charges made by the prosecutor that he was involved in aiding and abetting what was happening in Sierra Leone," his lawyer Courtenay Griffiths told AFP, ahead of the start of the defence case on Monday.
"He accepts that he was involved only in so far as he was trying to broker peace in Sierra Leone, not by aiding and abetting civil war," he said.
But court prosecutor Stephen Rapp insisted "Taylor was an exceptional violator of human rights," adding that the ex-leader’s testimony would shed the first light on certain episodes of the wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Taylor is accused of arming, training and controlling Revolutionary United Front rebels blamed for many of the mutilations, and of involvement in the "blood diamonds" trade.
He was expected to stay in the witness stand for six to eight weeks.
The 61-year-old has been on trial in The Hague since January 2008 following his arrest in Nigeria and his handover to the Special Tribunal for Sierra Leone in 2006.
Griffiths will start the defence case with opening statements on Monday, followed by the appearance of Taylor, the first defence witness, on Tuesday.
The defence case was expected to last anything between six and 12 months.
Griffiths could not say how many witnesses would be called. "We are still conducting interviews," he said.
He complained that the defence was at a disadvantage due to a lack of time and resources.
"We had a very short time to prepare. We were here in The Hague dealing with the case, unable to go out to West Africa to get witnesses," he said.
"Effectively, it is only since (the close of the prosecution case in January) that we have been able to get our case together.
"The court will not grant us a further postponement. It is under pressure to finish because donor countries are no longer interested," he added, referring to the member states that fund the tribunal voluntarily.
The salaries for Taylor’s 20-strong defence team — which includes six laywers — cost the court 1.5 million dollars a year.
Its resources, all provided by the court, were also not sufficient, the lawyer said. "I would have liked to have a couple more lawyers on the ground in West Africa."
The prosecution at the court said in a document that Taylor’s side has received "more than any defence team in the history of international tribunals."
Griffiths said the defence was at a further disadvantage because potential witnesses feared becoming the targets of UN travel bans.
"There is a lot of prejudice against Mr Taylor, and some people don’t want to be publicly associated with him."
The former warlord was president of Liberia from 1997 after his rebel forces unseated then-president Samuel Doe, but was himself overthrown by a rebellion and went into exile in 2003.
Taylor’s trial is being held in The Hague, having been moved from Freetown for fear that his presence in the African country could destabilise the region.