Charles Taylor: layman preacher and feared warlord

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Former Liberian president Charles Taylor, whose war crimes trial entered its final phase Tuesday with the prosecution's closing statements, was one of Africa's most feared warlords.

The 62-year-old who has compared himself to Jesus has been charged with a gruesome list of acts allegedly ordered during Sierra Leone's 1991-2001 civil war, one of the most brutal in modern history.

Testifying at the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Sierra Leone in July 2009, he called the 11 charges of murder, rape, conscripting child soldiers, enslavement and pillaging against him "lies".

"This whole case is a case of deceit, deception, lies," Taylor said. "I am not guilty of all of these charges, not even a minute part of the charges."

The trial tops a life marked by deep involvement in conflicts that blighted several African countries, driven according to prosecutor Brenda Hollis by Taylor's "greed and lust for power".

He is widely seen as the most powerful figure behind a series of civil conflicts in Liberia and its eastern neighbour Sierra Leone, between 1989 and 2003, which left some 400,000 people dead.

It was not enough, if the accusations are true, for Taylor to plunder his own west African state of Liberia, encourage rebellion in neighbouring Ivory Coast and make Guinea anxious about its own potential for revolution.

According to prosecutor, the "intelligent, charismatic manipulator" also chose to arm and train the notorious Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone.

He is accused of doing so in exchange for "blood diamonds", fuelling a 10-year conflict that left scores of thousands dead and thousands more with missing limb.

Taylor finally yielded to international pressure and stepped down in 2003 from the presidency he claimed in 1997 after a rebellion, then went into exile in Nigeria.

A thrice-married lay preacher with an economics degree from Bentley College in the US state of Massachusetts, Taylor rose to power on the backs of thousand who died during the rebellion he launched in 1989 against Liberia's military ruler Samuel Doe.

Doe was the first leader of the republic settled in the early 19th century by freed American slaves to come from one of the main ethnic groups in the interior of the country, the Krahn.

After graduation from college in 1977, Taylor joined the Liberian civil service under Doe, who himself seized power in 1980 and opted for an authoritarian regime.

Taylor was sacked in 1983 for embezzling nearly one million dollars in government funds and skipped the country, returning to the United States where he was jailed on an extradition warrant.

He escaped 16 months later and disappeared, surfacing in December 1989 at the head of a rebellion backed by Libya and reportedly by Burkina Faso.

His National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) earned a reputation for extreme violence and was among the first to force children, some as young as 10, to carry guns.

Seven grim years of war wearied the Liberian people, who in 1997 elected Taylor president, but his rise to power brought little relief to the country of 3.3 million.

Two years later, a second rebellion took place, this time against Taylor. Fighting ended when Taylor fled to Nigeria in 2003.

He remained out of reach there until Nigeria in March 2006 bowed to international calls to extradite him.

An AFP reporter who visited his villa and met him briefly days before his arrest found that he had access to a luxury Jaguar car with blacked out windows and diplomatic plates, and carried a battery of cellphones.

© 2011 AFP

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