Ex-Liberia Head's Trial Hears War Horrors

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor is seen in court as his trial reopened at the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague, Netherlands, Monday Jan. 7, 2008, six months after it was adjourned when he boycotted the opening session and fired his attorney.
AP Photo
A Sierra Leone clergyman has brought the horrors of his country's civil war to a Hague courtroom, becoming the first survivor of the carnage to testify at the war crimes trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor.

On Tuesday, Alex Tamba Teh, a small, soft-spoken pastor and teacher, recounted watching young boys methodically hack off the hands and feet of another teenager, hearing the terrorized screams of women being raped, stepping over corpses too many to count, and helping unload weapons for Sierra Leone rebels off a Liberian helicopter.

Prosecutors accuse Taylor, 59, of orchestrating atrocities by his Sierra Leone allies from his presidential palace in Liberia's capital, Monrovia.

Taylor, the first former African head of state to be tried by an international court, has pleaded innocent to all 11 charges.

Tamba Teh provided only tenuous links between Taylor and the rebels he is accused of supporting, particularly the Revolutionary United Front, or RUF. But the pastor's testimony on the second day of the interrupted trial was a riveting account that brought home the brutality of the civil war and gave a voice to the tens of thousands of victims who suffered through the 10-year conflict.

Tamba Teh, 47, said he was among about 250 civilians captured by rebels in April 1998 in the diamond mining district of Kono.

Separated from women and children, the men were taken to a shelter near a mosque, where a rebel commander known as Rocky told the pastor to pray for his fellow captives and then mowed them all down with a machine gun. Rocky later told another commander called "Rambo" that he had killed 101 men.

If Tamba Teh thought things could get no worse, he was wrong.

"After he had killed the civilians ... he gave instructions that they be decapitated," Tamba Teh told the three-judge tribunal.

A group of child soldiers known as a Small Boys Unit beheaded the corpses with machetes and cutlasses. Some were too small to lift the guns they were dragging around, Tamba Teh said.

A little later, another boy Tamba Teh estimated was 16 - screaming and asking what he had done wrong - was dragged to a log. The other boys pinned down his arms and legs on a log and hacked off his hands and feet with machetes.

After the mutilation, they grabbed the boy by the stumps, Tamba Teh said. "They were swinging him. They threw him over into a toilet pit. I saw it myself. They boy was screaming, shouting, crying."

Months later, Tamba Teh said he saw arms delivered to rebels by a Liberian helicopter and said that a key RUF leader known as Mosquito who took possession of the weapons identified Taylor as his "boss."

However, under cross examination he conceded that he had not mentioned Taylor in previous statements to prosecutors and that he earlier had said there were two Liberian helicopters, not one.

"It is the pressure," Tamba Teh said, acknowledging he was traumatized by the harrowing events of 1998 and 1999. "My memory cannot serve me well."

The third prosecution witness, expected to testify Wednesday, is a former member of Taylor's inner circle who will outline his links to Sierra Leone rebels, prosecutors say.

Taylor sat calmly throughout the testimony, taking notes and sometimes sipping water from a plastic beaker.

Shortly after he was captured, Tamba Teh said, he was brought before a group of 30 rebel commanders and narrowly survived a vote against killing him.

He was then taken to a rebel camp where captured women were repeatedly raped and forced to forage for food.

Prisoners at the camp had the acronyms of the RUF and allied rebel group the AFRC carved on their chests and backs with razors or knives, Tamba Teh said. That would prevent them from fleeing because they would be killed by enemy rebels if found with such markings, he said.

He was later transferred to another rebel camp known as Superman Ground where a commander smashed out his front teeth with the barrel of a gun. Tamba Teh opened his mouth, removed a denture and lifted his lips to show the court his missing teeth.

Earlier Tuesday, judges allowed into evidence clips from a documentary in which victims told of being sexually assaulted or dismembered by rebels who plundered West African diamond fields.

The ruling by the panel, overriding defense objections, capped the testimony of the first witness in the trial, a diamond expert who said Sierra Leone rebels backed by Taylor used slave labor to dig up diamonds worth between US$60 million to US$125 million a year, and terrorized the population to assert their control of the fields.

Prosecutors allege that diamonds from Sierra Leone were smuggled through Liberia, and Taylor used the proceeds to buy arms and ammunition for the rebels - earning them the name "blood diamonds."

Under cross-examination, the expert, Ian Smillie denied he was "hostile" toward Taylor. "We felt sorry for him. He had squandered his opportunity to turn Liberia from war to peace. We felt badly for Liberia and sorry that it had missed that opportunity," he said.

Taylor's trial resumed Monday after a six-month recess. It was adjourned last June after a chaotic opening day during which he boycotted proceedings and fired his lawyer.

The trial is being held in The Hague because of concerns that holding it in the Sierra Leone capital, Freetown, could spark new unrest.