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July 17, 2009

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Ex-Liberian president OK with skull displays

FORMER Liberian President Charles Taylor told a war crimes court yesterday in Hague, the Netherlands, that he saw nothing wrong with displaying the skulls of slain fighters at roadblocks as his rebel forces swept into the country in a 1989 revolution.

The invasion of Liberia and his ascent to power was a prelude to Taylor's involvement in the brutal 1991-2002 civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone, for which he is accused of 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

He has pleaded not guilty to all charges at the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

Taylor is not on trial for offenses in Liberia, but his testimony appeared aimed at allegations at the heart of the prosecution case that rebels backed by Taylor in Sierra Leone used terror tactics, including systematic amputations to intimidate the population.

Taylor has dismissed those allegations.

He used his third day on the witness stand to directly deal with some of the most grisly prosecution evidence - that his fighters in Liberia strung human entrails across roadblocks and displayed human heads on poles to strike fear into the local civilians and soldiers of the Liberian army.

He dismissed as "nonsense" the allegation that his troops disemboweled their enemies and tied their intestines across roads.

One of his former commanders who testified for the prosecution, Joseph "Zigzag" Marzah, said Taylor drove past such scenes. Taylor said that was "a blatant, diabolical lie."

But the 61-year-old former president conceded that skulls of Liberian soldiers were used as a symbol of death and displayed at strategic roadblocks in 1980 as a warning to follow the orders of the revolutionaries.

Taylor, who earned an economics degree at a United States college, said he had seen images of skulls used in many "fraternal organizations" and Western universities.

"I got to realize they were enemy skulls and we didn't think that symbol was anything wrong," he said. "I did not consider it bad judgment. I did not order them removed."

He also conceded atrocities were committed in Liberia, but said he had trained his small band of rebels to abide by the laws of war.


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