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In his last stand, Charles Taylor defends himself as a peacemaker

By Moni Basu, CNN
May 16, 2012 -- Updated 1512 GMT (2312 HKT)
Former Liberian President Charles Taylor waits for the start of the judgment hearing of his trial on April 26, 2012.
Former Liberian President Charles Taylor waits for the start of the judgment hearing of his trial on April 26, 2012.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Taylor delivers a 30-minute defense of his actions in Sierra Leone
  • NEW: He says his trial was corrupted by money
  • He was convicted of war crimes for his role in aiding rebels in Sierra Leone's bloody war
  • Judges will deliver a sentence on May 30

(CNN) -- He stood before judges Wednesday not as the first former head of state convicted of war crimes since World War II but as a leader convinced he was wronged by corruption and a hypocritical hand of justice.

In his last stand at a special court for Sierra Leone, his last chance to address the world before he is locked behind bars, former Liberian President Charles Taylor made a plea for why he should be spared the harshest sentence for his conviction on aiding and abetting war crimes.

He said he was saddened by last month's guilty verdict, in which the court said he had assisted Revolutionary United Front rebels who fueled Sierra Leone's long and bloody civil war that ultimately left 50,000 dead or missing.

Taylor insisted his intent was far from what had been portrayed by prosecutors and that he, himself, was a victim.

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"What I did to bring peace to Sierra Leone was done with honor," said Taylor, standing before the tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, dressed immaculately in suit and tie as he has been all throughout his trial.

He delivered a 30-minute defense of his actions in a calm voice, his demeanor the opposite of the combative Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander whose war crimes trial opened Wednesday in another special tribunal, one for the former Yugoslavia, in The Hague.

Not once, however, did he express remorse.

"I pushed the peace process hard, contrary to how I have been portrayed in this court," Taylor said.

He blamed money for an unfair trial.

"Money played a corrupting, influential, significant and dominant role in this trial," he said. "Money, in this case, prejudiced my rights and interests in a irrevocable way."

He said prosecutors received millions of dollars from the United States government and witnesses were paid off.

He compared the charges against him to what he called U.S. abuses but said President George W. Bush would never have to stand trial.

"President George W. Bush ordered torture and admitted to doing so," Taylor said. "Torture is a crime against humanity. The United States has refused to prosecute him. Is he above the law? Where is the fairness?"

He warned that other African leaders could receive similar unjust fates.

"I never stood a chance," Taylor said. "Only time will tell how many other African heads of state will be destroyed."

Last month's landmark ruling by the international tribunal against Taylor was the first war crimes conviction of a former head of state by an international court since the Nuremberg trials after World War II that convicted Adm. Karl Doenitz, who became president of Germany briefly after Adolf Hitler's suicide.

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was tried by an international tribunal, but he died before a judgment was issued.

Taylor, 64, was found guilty of all 11 counts of aiding and abetting rebel forces in Sierra Leone in a campaign of terror that involved murder, rape, sexual slavery, conscripting children younger than 15 and mining diamonds to pay for guns.

The prosecutors failed, however, to prove that Taylor assumed direct command over the rebels who committed the atrocities.

He has been a pivotal figure in Liberian politics for decades and was forced out of office under international pressure in 2003. He fled to Nigeria, where border guards arrested him three years later as he was attempting to cross into Chad.

The United Nations and the Sierra Leone government jointly set up the special tribunal to try those who played the biggest role in the atrocities. The court was moved to Netherlands from Sierra Leone, where emotions about the civil war still run high.

In closing, Taylor reminded the court that he was a father and a grandfather, and a man of genuine actions. At 64, he is not young anymore, he said. He is a man who favors peace and reconciliation, a man, he said, who is the opposite of the monster that the court said he really was.

"I am no threat to society," Taylor said.

Few, however, are likely to agree. The judges' guilty verdict last month was unanimous and prosecutors have said Taylor deserves a stiff prison sentence to reflect the gravity of the crimes.

There is no death penalty in international criminal law. Brenda Hollis, chief prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone, has said an 80-year sentence would be appropriate.

"But for Charles Taylor's criminal conduct, thousands of people would not have had limbs amputated, would not have been raped, would not have been killed," Hollis said in a statement released earlier. "The recommended sentence provides fair and adequate response to the outrage these crimes caused in victims, their families and relatives."

Taylor will find out his fate on May 30 when the special tribunal delivers its sentence.

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