THE HAGUE, Netherlands – In an unusual defense against war crimes charges, former Liberian President Charles Taylor told judges Thursday that he saw nothing wrong with displaying the skulls of slain enemy soldiers at roadblocks.
Taylor, 61, insisted he was trying to bring peace and the rule of law to Liberia as he testified in his own defense on the third full day at his trial.
He is charged with 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for allegedly supporting rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone who unleashed a campaign of terror in their country's 1991-2002 civil war. An estimated 500,000 people were the victims of killings, systematic mutilation or other atrocities in that war.
Taylor has pleaded not guilty to all charges at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, calling the allegations lies and rumors.
Taylor's 1989-90 invasion of Liberia and his ascent to power in a seven-year civil war were a prelude to his involvement in the brutal Sierra Leone conflict.
Taylor is not on trial for offenses in Liberia. But his lawyer, Courtenay Griffiths, told the judges that Taylor's testimony about the campaign to oust his predecessor, Liberian President Samuel K. Doe, was meant to counter the image drawn by prosecutors of a pattern of brutality.
"This is the suggestion at the heart of the prosecution case: That Mr. Taylor was from the outset a bloodthirsty warlord with no belief in the rule of law or human rights and it seems necessary to address that suggestion head on," Griffiths said.
Taylor dismissed as "nonsense" the allegation that his troops disemboweled their enemies and tied their intestines across roads. He also denied recruiting children as fighters.
Yet one of his former commanders who testified for the prosecution, Joseph "Zigzag" Marzah, said Taylor drove past such scenes. Taylor called that "a blatant, diabolical lie."
After listening to 91 prosecution witnesses over the past 18 months, Taylor said people had referred to his forces as if they "were brutes and savages: We are not. I am not."
Still, the former president conceded that skulls of Liberian soldiers were displayed at strategic roadblocks in 1990.
"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."
Taylor, who earned an economics degree at a U.S. college, said he had seen images of skulls used in many "fraternal organizations" and Western universities.
He also conceded atrocities were committed in Liberia by "bad apples" and renegade soldiers, but said he had taught his small band of rebels — from their initial training in Libya — to abide by the laws of war.
"We found out that they were taking place and we acted to bring those responsible to justice," he said. Rebel soldiers who committed excesses were court-marshaled and sometimes executed, but civilian judicial institutions were left in place in areas under rebel control, he said.
He deflected personal responsibility, saying some of his troops "got a little mischievous" including committing rape and looting, but they were always punished if commanders learned of wrongdoing.
Taylor denied that his Liberian forces used child soldiers, claiming instead that children sometimes accompanied their older brothers, cooking and washing clothes and sometimes carrying their weapons.
"They were not trained for combat and did not engage in combat," he said.
Taylor said he even sought to punish one of his most senior commanders, Prince Johnson, whom he described as a professional soldier and a firm disciplinarian who sometimes "went a little overboard." He said he ordered Johnson's arrest after the officer "got annoyed and executed" two soldiers without a court-martial.
Johnson evaded arrest, however, and made his way to the capital, Monrovia, ahead of the rest of Taylor's troops.
"Prince Johnson captures Doe alive and subsequently kills him," Taylor declared.
Johnson, now a senator in the Liberian legislature, had himself videotaped drinking Budweiser beer as he ordered his men to cut off the former president's ears, but he has maintained that Doe was killed by others.
Taylor is the first defense witness in the trial that opened in January 2008. A grim parade of prosecution witnesses from Sierra Leone, some with amputated limbs, described murders, tortures and the conscription of children who were drugged and sent into battle. Other witnesses sought to link Taylor to the rebel atrocities, alleging that he commanded the militias from the presidential mansion in Liberia and supplied them with weapons in exchange for illicit diamonds.
In his first three days, Taylor sketched a portrait of a turbulent African continent in the 1980s, where American anti-communist efforts held sway and African freedom fighters backed by Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi struggled to shake off "the yoke of colonialism."