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Taylor's lawyers open defence

LAWYERS for Charles Taylor began his defense against war crimes yesterday, arguing the former Liberian president was not responsible for the murder, rape and mutilation of civilians by rebels in Sierra Leone and should not be blamed simply out of disgust at the atrocities.

Taylor, the first African head of state to be tried by an international court, is charged with 11 crimes including murder, torture, rape, sexual slavery, using child soldiers and spreading terror.

Prosecutors allege he led rebels responsible for the crimes from his presidential mansion in the Liberian capital of Monrovia as a way of gaining influence over neighboring Sierra Leone so he could strip that country of its vast mineral wealth and in particular its diamonds.

"No one who has seen the procession through this courtroom of hurt human beings reliving the most grotesque trauma would have been unmoved," lawyer Courtenay Griffiths told the three-judge panel. "We are human too, even while we declare this accused man to be not guilty of the charges he faces."

In a year of testimony before the Special Court of Sierra Leone started in January 2008, prosecutors called dozens of villagers, some of them missing their hands, to testify about atrocities committed in Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 war.

Taylor, who sat impassively as he listened to Griffiths' opening statement, will take the stand in his own defense today.

Taylor was forced into exile after being indicted in 2003 and was arrested in Nigeria three years later. He was sent for trial in The Hague in June 2006 because officials feared staging the case in Sierra Leone could spark further violence.

Witnesses testified about radio exchanges between Taylor and the rebels, arms smuggled from Liberia to Sierra Leone in sacks of rice and diamonds sent back in a mayonnaise jar. One former aide said he saw Taylor eat a human liver.

About 500,000 people are estimated to be victims of killings, systematic mutilation and other atrocities in Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 civil war. Some of the worst crimes were carried out by gangs of child soldiers, who were fed drugs to desensitize them to the horror of their actions.


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