Former Liberian President Charles Taylor told a war crimes court Thursday he saw nothing wrong with displaying the skulls of slain fighters at roadblocks as his rebel forces swept into the country in a 1989 revolution.
The invasion of Liberia and his ascent to power was a prelude to Taylor's involvement in the brutal 1991-2002 civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone, for which he is accused of 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
He has pleaded not guilty to all charges at the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
Taylor is not on trial for offenses in Liberia, but his testimony appeared aimed at allegations at the heart of the prosecution case that rebels backed by Taylor in Sierra Leone used terror tactics, including systematic amputations to intimidate the population.
Taylor has dismissed those allegations as lies and rumors.
He used his third day on the witness stand to directly deal with some of the most grisly prosecution evidence — that his fighters in Liberia strung human entrails across roadblocks and displayed human heads on poles to strike fear into the local civilians and soldiers of the Liberian army.
He dismissed as "nonsense" the allegation that his troops disemboweled their enemies and tied their intestines across roads.
One of his former commanders who testified for the prosecution, Joseph "Zigzag" Marzah, said Taylor drove past such scenes. Taylor said that was "a blatant, diabolical lie."
But the 61-year-old former president conceded that skulls of Liberian soldiers were used as a symbol of death and displayed at strategic roadblocks in 1980 as a warning to follow the orders of the revolutionaries.
Taylor, who earned an economics degree at a U.S. college, said he had seen images of skulls used in many "fraternal organizations" and Western universities.
"I got to realize they were enemy skulls and we didn't think that symbol was anything wrong," he said. "I did not consider it bad judgment. I did not order them removed."
He also conceded atrocities were committed in Liberia, but said he had trained his small band of rebels — from their initial training in Libya — to abide by the laws of war.
"We found out that they were taking place and we acted to bring those responsible to justice," he said. Rebel soldiers who committed excesses were court-marshaled and sometimes executed, but civilian judicial institutions were left in place in areas under rebel control.
Taylor told the three-judge panel that for his 168-strong force to seize power in Liberia it would need the support of the local population.
"There would be no excesses," he said.
Taylor is the first defense witness in the trial, which opened in January 2008, following 91 prosecution witnesses who claimed Taylor commanded Sierra Leone rebels from the presidential mansion in Liberia. The rebels' signature crimes were amputations, rape and the conscription of child soldiers and enslavement of women.
In his first three days, Taylor sketched a turbulent African continent in the 1980s that was the backdrop for American anti-communist efforts and African freedom fighters backed by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi struggling to shake off "the yoke of colonialism."
Taylor is expected to testify for several weeks before the prosecution begins its cross-examination.
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