Liberia's former leader pleads not guilty to war crimes
Distances himself from horrors in Sierra Leone
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone -- The man who was once Africa's most feared warlord listened impassively to a litany of horrors couched in dispassionate legal language -- cutting off of limbs and other body parts; rape, abduction, and sexual slavery; pillaging; conscription of boys and girls.
Then Charles Taylor, whose war to rule Liberia dragged in nations across West Africa, firmly told a war tribunal: ''I did not and could not have committed these acts."
The judge accepted that as a not-guilty plea, and with that the first African president to be brought before such a court had been arraigned. As the hour-long hearing ended, Taylor, who is known for his flamboyance, stood and smiled and blew kisses to relatives.
Taylor's court appearance forced him ''to face the people of Sierra Leone, against whom he is accused of committing heinous atrocities," the court's chief prosecutor, Desmond de Silva, said in a statement yesterday.
The appearance came three years after Taylor was indicted and a week after he tried to escape being handed over to the court where he had been indicted for supporting Sierra Leonean rebels.
De Silva added a precedent had been set: ''Those who commit atrocities and violate international humanitarian law will be held accountable, no matter how rich, powerful, or feared people may be -- no one is above the law."
At the arraignment, Taylor's defense lawyer asked that the case remain in Sierra Leone at the international court established to try those responsible for atrocities during the country's 1991-2002 civil war.
Court officials have asked that the trial be moved to an international tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, because of fears the 58-year-old Taylor could still destabilize West Africa.
Taylor said through his lawyer that he feared for his safety in Sierra Leone but wanted to be tried in the region, in part because it would be easier for defense witnesses to testify. The court's chief prosecutor has said Taylor has no reason to fear for his safety.
After accepting Taylor's plea, Justice Richard Lussick instructed aides to set a date for the trial to begin. No date was immediately set.
De Silva has said the defense could be given months to prepare. He pointed out that prosecutors took two years to compile their evidence, which defense lawyers will review.
Taylor showed little emotion during the hearing, though at one point he shook his head as the indictment was read.
Security was tight. Taylor -- and court officials who have received death threats -- were protected by bulletproof glass and by dozens of UN peacekeepers from Mongolia and Ireland.
A Liberian lawyer had said the defense strategy would be to argue that the Sierra Leone court has no jurisdiction over Liberia or its head of state and so no right to try Taylor, who was president when he was indicted in 2003.
The court's appeals chamber had rejected a similar argument made soon after the indictment was filed.
Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has expressed fear that Taylor's supporters could use a trial in the region as an excuse to mount another insurgency, one that could, like Liberia's last war, spill across the region.
Taylor, who has proclaimed he is innocent of charges against him, won a disputed election in Liberia in 1997. Many former allies in an insurgency he had launched in 1989 took up arms against him in 2000 and attacked Monrovia in 2003.
President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria helped broker peace in Liberia by offering Taylor exile in Nigeria. The former president traveled to Nigeria in August 2003, five months after his Special Court indictment, as part of a deal to end fighting in Liberia.
Nigeria, under pressure from the United States and others, said last week it would hand over Taylor but made no move to arrest him. Taylor fled and was captured within a day by Nigerian police who found him trying to cross the Nigerian-Cameroonian border.