AMSTERDAM — Charles Taylor accuses the United States of “gunboat diplomacy,” of dumping him as part of a global policy of “regime change” and hypocrisy on human rights. Defending himself in court against war crimes charges, the former Liberian president is hitting back at his nemesis.
On the witness stand in The Hague, Taylor’s simmering anger at the U.S. has boiled over several times into venomous monologues.
Taylor is charged by the Special Court for Sierra Leone with 11 counts of murder, rape, sexual enslavement, torture and recruiting child soldiers while supporting rebels in Sierra Leone during the 1991-2002 civil war.
He denies wrongdoing and claims the U.S. is responsible for putting him in jail.
Last Thursday, he charged that the U.S. and Britain rammed resolutions through the U.N. Security Council blaming him — unfairly, he says — for sending Liberian fighters into Sierra Leone, beginning his downfall.
“I’m angry and hurt because I saw the whole country of Liberia destroyed, my government destroyed, simply because two responsible members of the international community … acquiesced in this nonsense,” he said.
If Washington and London would release classified radio intercepts, they could disprove key prosecution testimony claiming that he was directing the rebels in Sierra Leone, he claimed.
“The United States has the capacity to unravel this case if it chooses to,” he told the three judges.
Then-President George W. Bush led the international pressure for Taylor to resign and leave Liberia in 2003, after Taylor was accused of meddling in the Sierra Leone conflict and sponsoring death squads that committed grotesque atrocities against civilians to suppress any opposition.
After Taylor took refuge in Nigeria in a U.S.-brokered deal, Bush pushed for him to answer the international indictment issued earlier that year by the U.N.-backed special court. Taylor was arrested in 2006 and brought to the Netherlands, where a trial was deemed less disruptive than in West Africa.
Taylor’s beliefs are not unfounded, said Elwood Dunn, a political science professor at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn.
“I’m not surprised that Taylor wants to blame most of his troubles on the United States,” he said. “I think the United States did play a role in bringing him down — and I think the Liberian people are grateful for that.”
The history of Liberia — and of Taylor himself — is intimately entwined with the U.S.
Modern Liberia was founded by freed American slaves in the 1800s. Their descendants governed uninterrupted for more than 130 years, establishing a ruling class that looked down on the tribes that inhabited the country.
Taylor, the offspring of a Liberian magistrate and his illiterate housekeeper, attended college in Boston. He has told his war crimes judges that he brought back from the U.S. the principles of democracy and the rule of law — an image that contrasts with the portrait of tyrannical dictator presented by prosecution witnesses.
Taylor now says the U.S. is in no position to lecture him.
“Look, I went to school in America, OK? I was in Boston during the school desegregation in South Boston,” he said. “I remember that time when black students had to be put on buses and bused with police escort. …
“When it happens in your country, we don’t see you report about yourselves, about the dirt in your own country.”
Taylor initially had support within the U.S. government when he launched his insurrection to oust the dictatorship of Samuel K. Doe in 1989. But Washington soon grew impatient with Taylor’s autocratic ways, Dunn said.
A key moment in Taylor’s stormy relations with Washington came in 1998, when the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, opened its gate to allow rebels led by Roosevelt Johnson to escape Taylor’s pursuing forces. Johnson was airlifted out of the compound by a U.S. helicopter and out of Taylor’s grasp.
During 75 hours on the witness stand, Taylor has unleashed broadsides at those who accuse him of secreting millions of dollars in profits from dealing in “blood diamonds” from Sierra Leone in exchange for arms.
“They reduce me to a little petty thief. That’s what I’m supposed to be. A little petty thug,” Taylor said in one lengthy lament last week. “I’m definitely not that.”
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