Expert on Blood Diamonds Testifies at Ex-Liberian President Taylor's War Crimes Trial

Prosecutors launched their war crimes case against former Liberian President Charles Taylor on Monday, showing video of a Sierra Leone miner whose hands had been hacked off and taking testimony from an expert on blood diamonds.

Taylor, 59, is accused of terrorizing the people of Sierra Leone by orchestrating atrocities by militias known for slicing off their victims' limbs during the country's 10-year civil war, which ended in 2003.

His trial started in June but was immediately adjourned when he boycotted the hearing and fired his lawyer, claiming he would not get a fair trial.

The 11 charges against him include murder, rape, enslavement and conscripting child soldiers. Taylor, the first former African head of state to appear before an international tribunal, has pleaded innocent to all charges.

"This is a huge moment, as a former head of state is being tried for these most serious crimes," Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch said outside the trial chamber. "For crimes like that to be committed with impunity would be a travesty."

Ian Smillie, a Canadian expert on the international trade in conflict diamonds, told the three-judge panel that the militias, using captives for labor, took over Sierra Leonean diamond fields producing gems that were among the world's most valuable per carat.

The illicit diamond trade was likely one source of funds for smuggled arms shipments by suspected weapons dealers, including Leonid Minin and Viktor Bout, the prosecution suggested.

Smillie showed the judges photos of a plane that was used to smuggle 68 tons of Ukrainian weapons and ammunition into Liberia through Burkina Faso in March 1999.

Prosecutor Nick Koumjian also showed a documentary about conflict diamonds to give judges background on the trade and the history of Sierra Leone, although defense attorneys objected to Smillie being portrayed as a history expert.

One part of the documentary showed a Sierra Leonean miner whose hands were hacked off and whose wife and children were burned to death in 1998 by militias allegedly backed by Taylor. Another clip featured a boy who said he was kidnapped by the militia, the Revolutionary United Front or RUF, and forced to work as a slave in diamond mines.

Defense attorneys objected that the video was "prejudicial material over which he has no expertise whatsoever," and judges agreed Smillie should not be allowed to testify about atrocities.

Prosecutors say Taylor's desire for diamonds from Sierra Leone was one of the causes of his alleged involvement in that country's civil war.

Smillie said Taylor denied involvement in diamond smuggling when Smillie interviewed him in October 2000 as part of a U.N. investigation.

Taylor, wearing a gray suit and tie and gold-rimmed glasses, listened carefully to proceedings but showed no emotion as his trial resumed. He carefully studied prosecution documents and photos with his defense team.

Smillie was the first of 144 prosecution witnesses, though trial attorneys expect only half of them to appear in person. The complex case was expected to last nearly two years. An appeal would likely carry the legal process into 2010.

The second witness scheduled to testify was a victim of the militias. Taylor's defense team does not deny the atrocities happened in Sierra Leone, and has argued that calling victims is an unnecessary appeal to the emotions of judges.

"I think they're desperate," Taylor's lead attorney Courtenay Griffiths said. "Let us now see what the firm concrete evidence is that he was directly involved ordering the atrocities in Sierra Leone."

A former member of Taylor's inner circle will testify later about how the former Liberian president allegedly controlled and encouraged militias in neighboring Sierra Leone.

In Monrovia, the Liberian capital, hundreds of Taylor supporters attended a prayer service Sunday night, gathering before a mammoth poster of the accused ex-president.

Baptist preacher Joseph Johnson told the congregation: "We strongly believe in the innocence of the accused."

Taylor's support in his home country is led by his family, who say he was not in control of those who carried out the crimes. Some also argue it is unfair to single out Taylor when other Liberians linked to war crimes during civil conflict in Liberia from 1989 to 2003 have escaped trial.

After the war, Liberians established a truth and reconciliation process, which has no punitive powers.