Charles Taylor today accused the prosecution of “misleading the court” by introducing evidence that as Liberian president, Mr. Taylor acted to resolve conflicts between Sierra Leone’s rebel commanders, appoint a chief rebel leader in his warring neighboring country, and then independently offer safe haven in Liberia to a top rebel on the run. Mr. Taylor is on trial by the Special Court for Sierra Leone for his alleged role in serious international crimes committed by Sierra Leonean rebels during the country’s brutal civil war.
“The prosecution misled the court,” Mr. Taylor told judges today while testifying as a witness in his own defense.
Mr. Taylor was responding to the testimony of Vamunya Sherif, a previous prosecution witness and former Deputy Director of Operations in the Liberian Secret Service during Mr. Taylor’s presidency. The witness, in his January 2008 testimony, told Special Court judges that Mr. Taylor served as mediator between two senior rebel commanders of Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF), Issa Sesay and Sam Bockarie. According to Mr. Sherif, Mr. Taylor invited the two RUF commanders to Liberia in order to resolve a conflict between them, during which time Mr. Taylor changed the leadership of the RUF, making Mr. Sesay the RUF’s frontline commander in place of Sam Bockarie. The witness said that Mr. Bockarie eventually departed for Liberia where he sought a safe haven. Mr. Taylor today dismissed the witness’s account as “lies.”
“No such situation occurred where I sent for Sam Bockarie and Issa Sesay to discuss a conflict between them that will lead to the departure of Bockarie,” Mr. Taylor said.
“The prosecution knows that no such meeting took place because they have gone through major documents that tell how Bockarie left Sierra Leone, so for them to ask that question when they know that no such meeting took place is sinister, and the prosecution misled the court,” the accused former Liberian president added.
Mr. Taylor also explained that there is no “correlation” in the time at which Mr. Bockarie left Sierra Leone in 1999 and the time at which Mr. Sesay became interim leader of the RUF in 2000.
“We are talking about seven months beginning in December 1999 when Bockarie left Sierra Leone and August 2000 when Issa Sesay took over the leadership of the RUF, so there is no correlation between the two,” he said.
Mr. Taylor refuted the witness’s claim that when Mr. Bockarie departed Sierra Leone for Liberia with his fighters in December 1999, they moved to a Liberian border town before they were picked up by two helicopters belonging to Mr. Taylor’s Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU). Mr. Taylor said that his government had no helicopters at this time in 1999.
“If the court believes this story, then all the other stories before this court are false. There were no helicopters involved in the movement of these people,” he said.
Mr. Taylor further denied the witness’ claims that RUF commander Mr. Bockarie transported arms and ammunition from Liberia for use by RUF rebels in Sierra Leone. According to the witness, prior to the January 1999 rebel invasion of Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown, Mr. Bockarie was at Liberia’s international airport, the Roberts International Airport (RIA) to receive arms and ammunition.
“I think that this witness is confused or is deliberately mistating the evidence as he is told to do,” Mr. Taylor said.
The witness also said that in 1998, Mr. Bockarie travelled to Burkina Faso and returned with arms and ammunition via Liberia for RUF rebels in Sierra Leone. The weapons, the witness said were supplied by President of Burkina Faso, Blaise Campaore. Mr. Taylor denied this account.
“When Bockarie went to Burkina Faso in 1998, he did not return to Liberia with arms and ammunition to the best of my knowlege. I cannot speak for Blaise Campaore but I do not think that Blaise, in his position as Chairman of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) at that time will send arms and ammunition to the RUF,” he told the court.
Mr. Taylor has spent several days responding to the testimonies of prosecution witnesses on his relationship with RUF commander Mr. Bockarie. Several witnesses had told the court that Mr. Bockarie took orders from Mr. Taylor, which were then implemented by the RUF in pursuit of their war in Sierra Leone. Witnesses had also testified that Mr. Taylor provided support to the RUF through the supply of arms and ammunition and that the RUF commanders, including Mr. Bockarie and Mr. Sesay, transported diamonds mined in Sierra Leone to Mr. Taylor. Witness accounts claim that Mr. Taylor’s relationship with the RUF extended to the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), a group of Sierra Leonean soldiers who overthrew the elected government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah in May 1997. The soldiers formed a merger with the RUF and together, they ruled Sierra Leone until February 1998 when they were forcefully removed from the country’s capital Freetown by West African peacekeepers. They retreated to the country’s hinterland where they launched various attacks against the government and civilian population of Sierra Leone.
Mr. Taylor is accused of providing support for this AFRC and RUF forces during Sierra Leone’s conflict. He now stands charged of the crimes committed by the rebels in Sierra Leone, including rape, murder, recruitment of child soldiers, and terrorizing the civilian population among others. Six senior commanders in the AFRC and RUF have been convicted and sentenced to terms of imprisonment by the Special Court for Sierra Leone in Freetown. On Saturday October 31, 2009, they were all taken to Rwanda, where they will serve their prison terms in a Rwandan jail.
In his testimony today, Mr. Taylor denied giving support to the AFRC/RUF merger, insisting that his government, like other West African governments, did not recognize the illegal regime in Sierra Leone.
“No one West African country recognized the AFRC junta. There is no recognition by Liberia or any other country,” he told the judges today.
Mr. Taylor’s testimony continues tomorrow.