Charles Taylor decided to leave the Liberian presidency for asylum in Nigeria because he wanted peace in his West African homeland, he today told Special Court for Sierra Leone judges in The Hague.
“I decided that I will leave for the sake of peace,” the accused former Liberian president said.
In August 2003, as rebel forces advanced on the Liberian capital Monrovia with an aim of unseating Mr. Taylor, the former president agreed to step-down as president. He left Liberia in August 2003 and relocated to Nigeria, where he lived until March 2006 when he was transferred to the custody of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. In his testimony today, Mr. Taylor explained the circumstances surrounding his departure from Liberia and the unsealing of the indictment against him by the Special Court’s Chief Prosecutor.
His concern for the suffering of the Liberian people caused by rebel forces was the motivating factor in his decision to step down from power, Mr. Taylor said today, which he announced to other West African leaders during peace talks in Ghana in 2003.
“I told them that if I am the problem in Liberia, I’ll go and tell the people that look, I will leave,” he said.
After giving this assurance in the office of the Ghanaian president, an announcement was made that the then Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, David Crane, had issued an indictment against him.
“Everybody was upset. The meeting almost came to an end,” Mr. Taylor said.
The accused former president said that he still kept his word. “I promised them that I will still step down,” he said.
West African leaders assured Mr. Taylor that they would inform the United Nations Security Council that the indictment was “unacceptable” and that it would be “quashed,” he said.
“I was informed that the UN Security Council will meet and the indictment will not stand. It was based on that assurance that I got on the plane and returned to Liberia,” Mr. Taylor explained.
“Following my return to Liberia, between June and August, there are series of negotiations going on. Obasanjo [Nigerian president] finally comes to Liberia and he assures me that he had spoken to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and they had assured him that the indictment will be quashed,” he said.
On the strength of this promise, Mr. Taylor said he left Liberia for Nigeria in August of 2003.
Mr. Taylor accused the United States of involvement in a covert plan with his former vice president Moses Blah to overthrow him while he was holding peace talks with West African leaders in Ghana. “My return to Monrovia that night destroyed the whole plan,” he said.
Asked by his defense counsel about his impression of the indictment, Mr. Taylor said that “my own point is that the issue of regime change had been put in place.”
In discussing the circumstances surrounding his indictment, Mr. Taylor reaffirmed a common position he has taken in the past: that his trial is “political” and “racist.”
These themes reemerged when Mr. Taylor and his defense counsel, Courtenay Griffiths, discussed the 2006 statement delivered before the United States House of Congress sub-committee on Africa by Mr. Crane.
Mr. Crane was quoted as telling US officials that “unsealing of the indictment was a deliberate plan on my part to publicly strip this war lord of his power by my signature. My intent was to humble him and humiliate him before his peers.” Testimony further centered on Mr. Crane’s admission that he gave copies of Mr. Taylor’s indictment to US government officials two months before unsealing it. (Both of these statements by Mr. Crane had also been raised by Mr. Griffiths as part of his opening statement back in July).
In his response to Mr. Crane’s actions, Mr. Taylor today told the judges that “a decision had been taken for regime change in Liberia and this whole thing had been political, not legal. He was reporting to his bosses.”
Also in his testimony today, Mr. Taylor denied prosecution allegations that he had secret bank accounts in which huge amounts of money had been kept. He challenged the prosecution to release details of the accounts.
Mr. Taylor also told the court that he played an honest-broker role in securing the release of over 500 peacekeepers who were held hostage by Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in Sierra Leone in 2000.
Mr. Taylor is accused of providing support to RUF rebels who waged an 11-year war on the government and people of Sierra Leone. It is alleged, among other things, that Mr. Taylor occupied a position of control over RUF rebels and that he could have prevented or punished rebel forces crimes against the people of Sierra Leone — including crimes of sexual violence, murder and recruitment of child soldiers. Mr. Taylor has denied all 11 charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious violations of international humanitarian law against him.
Mr. Taylor has been testifying as a witness in his own defense since July 14, 2009. He is expected to finish his direct-examination on Tuesday, after which the prosecution will start his cross-examination. During cross-examination, the prosecution is expected to challenge Mr. Taylor on the “accuracy, truthfulness and completeness” of his testimony.
Mr. Taylor’s testimony continues tomorrow.