“It is quite incredible that such descriptions of me would come about. I am none of these, I have never been and never will be, whether they think so or not.”
Taylor’s lawyers began their defence on Monday at the court in The Hague, which is conducting the trial at the request of the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
They argued on Monday that Taylor – the first African leader to be tried before an international tribunal for war crimes and crimes against humanity – tried to broker peace in Sierra Leone rather than fuel civil war.
Estimates of the 1991-2001 conflict’s death toll run as high as 200,000.
Prosecutors, who closed their case in February, said Taylor armed and supported the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a rebel movement that sought to destabilise the government, and attempted to gain control of Sierra Leone’s diamond mines.
But Taylor said on Tuesday that had in fact been involved in attempts by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) to get the RUF “to come to the peace table”.
“I, Charles Ghankay Taylor never, ever, at any time knowingly assisted Foday Sankoh [the RUF leader] in the invasion of Sierra Leone.”
He said that he was “outraged” when he learnt that the RUF had invaded the Sierra Leone capital, Freetown, in January 1999.
Taylor has been on trial at The Hague since June 2007 at facilities provided by the International Criminal Court.
The Special Court for Sierra Leone is headquartered in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, but the trial is taking place in the Dutch capital due to concerns it may trigger violence in Sierra Leone.
In May, judges at the Special Court for Sierra Leone ruled against a defence request to acquit Taylor of war crimes charges, saying the prosecution had produced enough evidence supporting a conviction.
However, Judge Richard Lussick has stressed that the ruling does not mean Taylor would be convicted.
Courtney Griffiths, Taylor’s defence lawyer, told Al Jazeera that he believed that the “quality of that evidence is just not good enough”.
“For the most part the prosecution relies on some 33 so-called linkage witnesses,” he said.
“For the most part the prosecution relies on the evidence of fairly lowly members of the RUF and the NPFL [National Patriotic Front of Liberia], none of whom, we say, would have had the kind of access to Charles Taylor to make their evidence credible.”
Local residents were able to watch Tuesday’s trial in a courtroom in Freetown.
Al Jazeera’s Yvonne Ndege, reporting from Freetown, said many residents lost interest in the case after it was moved to The Hague, but more people were coming to watch now that Taylor was in the stand.
“The courtroom was packed with a few hundred people representing non-governmental organisations and those who were affected,” she said.
|Taylor insists that he is innocent of all charges levelled by judges of The Hague court EPA]|
“There have been bursts of laughter, tears, and scenes of people’s jaws dropping.”
Speaking to Al Jazeera shortly before Taylor took the stand, Desmond Davies, the editor of Africa Week magazine, said that the former Liberian ruler was not the only person who should be on trial.
“It won’t bring a great deal of relief to those who suffered because the perpetrators are still out there. Charles Taylor, I believe, is just a fall guy.
“He’s not as guilty as some others who are not in front of the court,” Davies said.
“I spoke to former RUF members and they actually told me that former members of the government in Sierra Leone supported the RUF. And I’ve spoken to ex-military intelligence officers who said ‘yes, that is the case’.”
Davies said the money that has been spent – roughly $98 million “should have gone to those who suffered most, those who had their limbs amputated”.
“The money has been spent on chasing Charles Taylor and just jailing a handful of rebels, that’s not what they [the victims] want,” he said.
“They want a proper solution to the suffering and that means there should be some financial settlement for them.”
A final verdict is expected in a year’s time.