Former Liberian President Charles Taylor concealed banned weapons and ammunition in rice sacks before distributing them to rebels fighting in Sierra Leone's civil war, a former aide and army commander testified Thursday.
Varmuyan Sherif, 39, told a war crimes tribunal that Taylor arranged the transport of the weapons from his presidential mansion to the Sierra Leone border in violation of a U.N. arms embargo.
He sometimes conscripted villagers to carry unbearably heavy loads on their heads for two days through jungles when the main roads were too dangerous for vehicles, he said.
Sherif was testifying in The Hague for a second day at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which has indicted Taylor on 11 counts of murder, rape and recruiting child soldiers by the Sierra Leone militias he is accused of arming and supporting.
Taylor is the first African head of state to be tried by an international court.
Witnesses from Taylor's inner circle
Sherif was the first of nearly 60 witnesses from Taylor's inner circle the prosecution plans to call to support allegations that Taylor orchestrated atrocities during Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war from the Liberian capital, Monrovia.
Sherif said from 2001 to 2002, Liberian commanders — summoned to Taylor's mansion to receive weapons — were instructed to empty the original bags and containers and transfer them to rice bags.
"We had an arms embargo," said Sherif, who served as a bodyguard for Taylor before being appointed to a senior army command. "We would take them out of the bags so that people wouldn't know where they were coming from." He said he sometimes saw writing on the original bags in Chinese or Arabic script.
Taylor provided vehicles to carry weapons to the Sierra Leone border, where they were given to rebel forces, he said. When the Liberian roads were ambushed, he ordered his officers to move the weapons through jungle roads and to seize civilians to carry them on a forced two-day march. Asked how much the packages weighed, Sherif said: "It is too heavy, very heavy."
Sherif said Taylor's influence with the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front was so strong that he settled a leadership battle within the RUF by replacing its commander, Sam Bockarie.
"Mr. Taylor was the father of the RUF," he said. The RUF was notorious for terrorizing civilians by chopping off limbs and decapitating the corpses of its enemies.
Sherif said he overheard a meeting at which Taylor's top military commander, Benjamin Yeaten, ordered Bockarie and the RUF to attack Sierra Leone. "The attack was carried out," he said, though it was not clear from his testimony when it occurred.
The RUF and other militias loyal to Taylor used both Liberian and Sierra Leone territory to launch attacks against Guinea, Liberia's neighbor to the north, he said.
Small Boys Units
Sherif said children were attached to all Liberian military divisions and were known as Small Boys Units, their members usually ranging in age from 12 to 16. His own unit was commanded by a youth known as Junior, who was 10 or 11 years old, he said.
Soldiers would use the term "captured alive" as a general reference to women. "It means, in a captured village you can take any woman you like," he said.
Under cross-examination, Sherif acknowledged that all militias in the West Africa's wars mistreated civilians, recruited child soldiers and took women as sex slaves.
"All the factions were involved in ugly things," he said, including his own.
Sherif's claim challenged
Defense attorney Courtenay Griffiths argued with Sherif over his claim that he was Taylor's confidante and suggested he did little more than to ensure Taylor's motorcade had fuel and full tires.
"I suggest you were never as close to President Taylor as you claim to be," Griffiths said. "You say you were part of the inner circle, an insider, when you were not."
Griffiths stressed Sherif's early opposition to Taylor before the 1997 election that gave him the presidency.
Sherif agreed that Taylor had sought to reconcile warring factions by bringing senior opposition commanders into his government and military.
Taylor's trial resumed this week after a six-month interruption.
Earlier this week, a Sierra Leonean clergyman and teacher described in harrowing detail the massacre and decapitation of 101 men and the dismemberment of a child soldier. An international diamond expert also testified that diamonds mined by Sierra Leone militias and their forced laborers funded the conflict.