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Former top security officer for Taylor testifies at ex-Liberian president’s war crimes trial

    THE HAGUE, Netherlands — A former bodyguard and member of Charles Taylor’s inner circle testified Wednesday that a secret radio room linked the Liberian ex-president’s mansion with a notoriously brutal rebel leader in neighboring Sierra Leone.
    Varmuyan Sherif, 39, said he served as a senior member of the security detail for Taylor and his family after Taylor became president in 1997. He is the first of nearly 60 ‘‘insider witnesses’’ the prosecution plans to call to support its allegations that Taylor orchestrated atrocities during Sierra Leone’s 10-year civil war from his mansion in the Liberian capital, Monrovia.
    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.
    Sherif, wearing a traditional brown tunic 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 is expected to last at least into Thursday.
    Sherif told judges he was a former rebel who fought against Taylor’s forces in Liberia’s civil war in the 1990s. He was brought into a ‘‘government of inclusion’’ that included many former opposing factions following Taylor’s election as president.
    Sherif rose quickly in the ranks of Taylor’s Special Security Service and apparently became a trusted aide.
    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 traveled overseas with Taylor, including a trip to Taiwan and another to neighboring Guinea.
    In late 1998, Taylor sent Sherif to Sierra Leone to collect Sam Bockarie, leader of the Revolutionary United Front, a rebel militia known for murdering and hacking off the limbs of its victims, enslaving civilians and raping women.
    In an apparent attempt to impress his Liberian hosts, Bockarie shot and killed five captured rival fighters, Sherif said.
    As Bockarie walked away, he told his men, ‘‘By the time I come back, there are many people, I want them all dead,’’ Sherif said.
    The following day, Sherif was taken to a radio room outside Bockarie’s official residence where an operator immediately made contact with 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.
    The testimony was the clearest indication yet in the four-day-old trial that Taylor had such well-established communication lines with Sierra Leone rebels.
    Sherif waived his right to appear as a protected witness, which would have prevented public disclosure of his identity.
    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.
    The first witness, Canadian diamond expert Ian Smillie, said Sierra Leonean rebels backed by Taylor used slave labor to dig up diamonds worth $60 million-$125 million a year, and terrorized the population to assert their control of the fields.
    Prosecutors allege that diamonds from Sierra Leone were smuggled through Liberia, and Taylor used the proceeds to buy arms and ammunition for the rebels — earning them the name ‘‘blood diamonds.’’
 

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