A former bodyguard for Charles Taylor gave an insider's view on Wednesday of the former Liberian president's regime, testifying that he funneled arms, fighters, communications equipment and cash to rebels in Sierra Leone who were notorious for their brutality.
Varmuyan Sherif, 39, told war crimes judges he had served as a senior security officer for Taylor and his family after Taylor became president in 1997 and was responsible for the leader's motorcade and protection on some of his foreign journeys.
Sherif was the first of nearly 60 witnesses from Taylor's inner circle whom the prosecution plans to call to support allegations that Taylor orchestrated atrocities during Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war from his mansion in the Liberian capital, Monrovia.
Pointing to towns and routes on maps, Sherif detailed aid supplied by the Liberian leader to Sam Bockarie and his Sierra Leone rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front, or RUF.
Taylor sent them truckloads of arms, urged Liberian rebels to join the RUF and gave Bockarie a satellite phone and cash, Sherif said. Bockarie, meanwhile, smuggled diamonds into Liberia in a mayonnaise jar, he added.
Taylor brought 350 RUF fighters into a Liberian anti-terrorism unit run by his son, Chuckie Taylor, and provided the RUF with a house in Monrovia, Sherif said.
Taylor, 59, is the first former African head of state tried by an international court. He has pleaded innocent to 11 charges linked to his alleged support of Sierra Leone rebels.
Meeting with rebels described
Sherif spoke to an elated Bockarie shortly after the rebel's first face-to-face meeting with Taylor at the executive mansion, called White Flower. Bockarie was carrying U.S. dollars and a satellite phone he said Taylor gave him.
"He showed me the money and the satellite phone and he told me he was now a happy man," Sherif said. Bockarie said he would now have to "achieve his mission," Sherif said, adding that Bockarie did not say what the mission was.
Sherif said he saw Bockarie in Monrovia on at least two other occasions, including once when a planeload of weapons and ammunition arrived at the airport and was trucked to White Flower.
Sherif, wearing a traditional long brown shirt and matching trousers, did not look across at Taylor as he entered the chamber of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The trial was moved from Freetown to The Hague for fear it could re-ignite instability at home.
Taylor took copious notes during Sherif's testimony, which was to continue Thursday.
Sherif, a former rebel who fought against Taylor's forces in Liberia's civil war in the 1990s, was brought into a "government of inclusion" that included many former opposing factions following Taylor's election as president in 1997.
On one occasion, he said he pleased the president by persuading former fighters to turn over a large stash of weapons they had buried to avoid turning them in during a disarmament program. Sherif said he himself drove one pickup truck full of the weapons to the Sierra Leone border and gave them to Bockarie.
Secret communications center alleged
In late 1998, Taylor sent Sherif to Sierra Leone to collect Bockarie. In an apparent attempt to impress or intimidate his Liberian visitors, Bockarie shot and killed five captured rival fighters, Sherif said.
The following day, Sherif was taken to a radio room outside Bockarie's official residence where an operator immediately reached a secret communications center on the fifth floor of Taylor's mansion. Although Sherif was a senior member of Taylor's security apparatus, he had not known about the room, he said, but it was clearly a well-established communication channel with the rebels across the border.
Earlier Wednesday, defense lawyers completed their cross examination of a Sierra Leonean clergyman and teacher who had described in harrowing detail the massacre and decapitation of 101 men and the dismemberment of a child soldier.
On Tuesday, Alex Tamba Teh 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 numerous to count and helping unload weapons for Sierra Leonean rebels off a Liberian helicopter.
Taylor's trial, adjourned in June after Taylor boycotted the proceedings and fired his lawyer, resumed Monday after a six-month recess.