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Former Liberian President Charles Taylor boycotts his war crimes trial

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor boycotted and his assigned lawyer walked out of the courtroom in his first international war crimes trial .

Lawyer Karim Khan said Taylor had fired him and wanted to act has his own defense attorney. Khan then walked out even though Presiding Judge Julia Sebutinde of Uganda repeatedly directed him to continue to represent Taylor, if only for the opening day.

"This is not a defense stunt. This is not defense counsel making some cheap trick," Khan told The Associated Press outside the courtroom. Taylor "thought this was a railroad to a conviction and in those circumstances, he exercised his right to terminate my representation and to represent himself."

The court ordered the trial to continue, and Chief Prosecutor Stephen Rapp began his opening statement, outlining the horrors inflicted on Sierra Leone villagers by forces allegedly under Taylor's control.

The attackers would randomly murder people and enslave others to use as fighters, miners and farmers, Rapp said.

Then "the attackers would mutilate; amputating arms, limbs, gouging eyes. Children conscripted by the attackers killing their own parents."

Taylor, 59, has pleaded not guilty to 11 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The court has no death sentence and no maximum sentences if he is convicted.

After Monday, the case was to adjourn for three weeks. It was unclear who would be sitting on the defense bench when it resumes June 25. The trial was expected to last 18 months.

Taylor was not in court Monday. In a letter read to judges by Khan, he claimed he had been prevented from seeing a court official mandated with making sure he is properly defended and that his one court-appointed attorney was heavily outgunned by the prosecution team of nine.

"At one time I had confidence in this court's ability to dispense justice. Over time, it has become clear that confidence has been misplaced," Taylor's statement said. "I will not receive a fair trial."

Rapp told the court Taylor had been assigned a lawyer, assistant attorneys, a special investigator and court funds.

Sebutinde, the presiding judge, repeatedly interrupted Khan's reading of Taylor's letter, demanding a to-the-point explanation for Taylor's absence.

"We are not interested in political speeches," she told the lawyer.

But she also called Taylor's inability to see the court official overseeing defense issues, known as the principle defender, "worrying" and said it could delay the trial. She ordered officials to arrange for the official, Vincent Nmehielle, to fly from Sierra Leone to meet with Taylor.

The trial had been expected to be difficult even before Monday's developments. Nonetheless, it has been hailed as a watershed for war-torn western Africa.

"It's a time in the history of Africa that the leaders ... go on notice that they just cannot destroy their own people for whatever purpose," said David Crane, a former chief prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

In his opening remarks, prosecutor Rapp said a judgment "will not bring back the dead from their graves, nor give back limbs to the thousands of amputees" but would give "some small measure of closure" to the people of Sierra Leone.

The atrocities in Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 civil war are well-documented. Fighters often children drugged and turned into merciless killers at brutal rebel training camps murdered thousands of men, women and children and mutilated more by hacking off hands and limbs with axes and machetes. Women were raped and abducted to become sex slaves.

Many victims had the initials of rebel groups carved into their skin with burning-hot bayonets. Children were sent out with burlap bags to hack off and collect limbs and were punished if the bags were not full when they returned.

When witnesses begin testifying, survivors, including amputees, will take the stand along with former allies from Taylor's inner circle.

Many will testify anonymously for fears of reprisals from Taylor supporters, and some will be put in witness protection schemes after giving evidence.

While the charges he faces refer to events in Sierra Leone, Liberia's neighbor, Taylor also is linked to brutality in his own country.

At the Liberian capital's largest cemetery, where most of the tombstone dates are from the period of the country's 14-year civil war, four gravediggers listened to radio reports of the start of Taylor's trial Monday. One gravedigger, Flomo Tokpah, 54, said his older brother was killed by Taylor's forces, and that he was glad Taylor did not address the court himself.

"I don't want to hear that wicked man's voice anymore," he said.

But his co-worker, Teddy Taweh, 42, said Taylor "should face the court and tell people why he did what he did."

From 1989 to 1997, Taylor led the rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia, whose aim was to unseat then-President Samuel K. Doe. Taylor is believed to be one of the first warlords to recruit children, who were organized into a Small Boys Unit and christened with names like "Babykiller." Taylor was elected Liberia's president in 1997.

Taylor was indicted in 2003, accused of sponsoring Sierra Leone's rebel Revolutionary United Front in exchange for diamonds. Taylor agreed to give up power and go into exile, but was arrested in Nigeria in March 2006.

He was transferred to The Hague a year ago amid fears his trial in Sierra Leone could trigger fresh violence in the region. His trial was taking place in a court room rented from the International Criminal Court by the U.N.-backed court that usually sits in Sierra Leone and was established to try those held most responsible for the Sierra Leonean war.

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