, THE HAGUE,. July 14 – Former Liberian president Charles Taylor is set to take the stand for the first time in his war crimes trial on charges linked to the brutal 1991-2001 civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone.
Taylor, the first African leader to be tried before an international tribunal for war crimes and crimes against humanity, will argue that he tried to broker peace in the west African nation rather than fuel war.
"We are here to defend a man who we say is innocent of all these charges," Taylor’s lawyer Courtenay Griffiths told the court in opening statements for the defence on Monday.
"Taylor was not an African Napoleon bent on taking over the sub-region. He had a frontline role in the conflict as a broker of peace."
Taylor, the first witness to take the stand for the defence, faces 11 charges for murder, rape, conscripting child soldiers, enslavement and pillaging in one of the most brutal wars in modern history.
The 61-year-old is accused of arming, training and controlling Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels blamed for the mutilation of thousands of civilians who had their hands and arms severed.
About 120,000 people were killed in the conflict.
Prosecutor Stephen Rapp has insisted that Taylor was "an exceptional violator of human rights" who steadily provided weapons and support to the RUF in exchange for "blood diamonds."
The ex-leader’s testimony is expected to last six to eight weeks and should shed new light on the wars in Sierra Leone and in Liberia.
A final verdict in the case is only expected in a year’s time.
The defence has deposited a list of 249 witnesses who might be called and has accused the prosecution of making "lavish payments" to its own 91 witnesses.
Taylor became president of Liberia in 1997 after his rebels unseated president Samuel Doe in 1989, but was himself overthrown by a rebellion and agreed to go into exile in 2003.
He was handed over the Special Tribunal for Sierra Leone in 2006 following his arrest in Nigeria.
The former warlord’s trial was moved from Sierra Leone to the Netherlands because of fears that his presence in the African country could destabilise the region. He has been on trial in The Hague since January, 2008.
Griffiths told the court on Monday it was wrong to portray Taylor as "such a bad man", given that he made "efforts to end the sufferings of the Liberian people" and "rebuild its fledgling economy."
A Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) last week released a damning report on the Liberian civil wars of 1989-2003 and included Taylor on a list of eight warlords it wanted brought to trial for crimes against humanity.