- Liberian ex-Dictator Charles Taylor pleaded not guilty to 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity on Monday at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, but said he did not recognise the war crimes court's jurisdiction. "Most definitely, your honour, I did not and could not have committed these acts against the sister republic of Sierra Leone," said Mr Taylor in his first appearance before the court.
The Liberian ex-President, dressed in a dark suit with white shirt and red tie, added, "I think that this is an attempt to continue to divide and rule the people of Liberia and Sierra Leone and so most definitely I am not guilty."
The UN-backed special court spent over 30 minutes reading the indictment, which includes responsibility for murder, mass rape and sexual slavery, mutilation and use of child soldiers in Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 war. During the reading of the charges, a sombre-faced Mr Taylor shifted around in his seat, repeatedly clasping his hands.
In a statement on Monday Chief Prosecutor Desmond de Silva said, "The people of Sierra Leone have been waiting patiently for three years to see the accused finally face the trial chamber."
On sitting down in the courtroom Mr Taylor looked about at the crowd, which included members of the public, giving a slight bow to greet his sister.
The judge asked Mr Taylor three times whether he understood the charges against him before the warlord-turned-president responded, "Yes, I do." But before pleading not guilty, Mr Taylor said he wished to address several concerns he had about the court and about "how I got here", saying: "For me it is not the matter now of entering a plea because I do not recognise the jurisdiction of this court."
Later, Mr Taylor's court-appointed principal defender said the indictee "wants to be tried in Sierra Leone and nowhere else." The Special Court, seated in Sierra Leone's capital Freetown, is the first-ever international war crimes tribunal to be held in the country where atrocities took place.
But on Thursday, a day after Mr Taylor was arrested, the court announced it was requesting that his trial be transferred to facilities at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague because of security concerns. The ICC has yet to give its official response to the Special Court's request, and a UN resolution to transfer the trial is under discussion in the UN Security Council.
Some Sierra Leoneans say it is only right for Mr Taylor to be tried in the country he is accused of crippling by looting diamonds in exchange for arms for the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels. But many welcome the call to transfer the trial out of Africa, frightened at the risks attached to hosting Mr Taylor in a country where peace is yet fragile, and in a region where the Liberian ex-Dictator is said to maintain a network of supporters.
Mr Taylor, whom prosecutor de Silva said last week was known as an "escapologist", once jumped a prison in the United States, and nearly escaped Nigerian authorities last week after Nigeria announced Liberia was "free to take" the exiled former president. He was detained while trying to enter northern Cameroon with a bag full of foreign currencies.
Echoing the sentiments expressed on many radio phone-in shows recently in Freetown, Sierra Leonean lawyer James Blyden Jenkins Johnston said in a local newspaper: "Please take Charles Taylor somewhere else for him to face trial! Do not disturb our peace again."
But at the court, the opening of the trial was celebrated as a historical day. "Today marks an important step in the administration of criminal justice," Mr de Silva said. "Those who commit atrocities and violate international humanitarian law will be held accountable. No matter how rich, powerful or feared people may be - no one is above the law."
David Crane, former prosecutor at the Special Court, told the US broadcaster 'CNN' shortly after Mr Taylor's plea on Monday that the brutality of crimes against civilians in Sierra Leone's war was beyond comprehension, saying drugged-up child soldiers were made into "monsters incarnate". "As I was giving my opening statement ... I asked the tribunal to literally believe the unbelievable."
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