Charles Taylor at the Hague: Theatrical defense reminiscent of Hussein, Milosevic

The former Liberian leader kicked off his defense for alleged war crimes Monday by quoting Shakespeare.

Robin van Lonkhuijsen/AP
Former Liberian President Charles Taylor, (r.), and his defense lawyer are seen at the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague, Netherlands, on Monday.

We've seen this movie before. You know, the one where the brutal dictator finally gets his day in court only to turn into a drama queen, angrily denouncing the court as a charade one minute, crying about being misunderstood the next. ("They just don't understand me, your honor. I did everything for them." Sniff, sniff ... weep.)

This time it's Liberia's former leader and chief warlord, Charles Taylor. The first African head of state to be charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity "swaggered into the witness stand in the Hague to plead his innocence," reports The Times of London.

The UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone indicted Mr. Taylor in June 2003 on 17 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity over the 1991-2002 war in Sierra Leone but condensed the charges to 11 counts in 2006. The prosecution has closed it case after bringing in a range of witnesses to tell stories of violence, rape, and amputation. Now it's Taylor's turn to tell his side.

Taylor quotes Shakespeare

Ever the showman, Taylor proceeded to portray himself Tuesday as a victim of a mob thirsty for revenge. And what better way to do that then to quote the master of drama in the English language, William Shakespeare?

"Haven't they had their pound of flesh?" he asked, apparently referring to the fact that he's been made to spend time in a heavily-fortified detention center in The Hague while his trial plays out.

That's right, Taylor was comparing himself to Antonio in Merchant of Venice. And the hundreds of thousands of Liberians and Sierra Leoneans who lost family members during the brutal, diamond-fueled war under his rule? The countless children forced to become soldiers, woman raped, and people maimed? Are they supposed to be Shylock?

Tragedies and 'comedies'

Taylor's theatrics bring to mind other leaders tried for war crimes.

Remember when Saddam Hussein angrily denounced his trial for crimes against humanity as a "comedy" and insisted he was still Iraq's head of state?

Or how about when former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic told the war crimes tribunal in The Hague that the charges against him were "a mutilation of justice"? He just couldn't see what all the fuss was about. It was "a farce, pure and simple," he said. "Our greatest wish was to establish peace. During all of those 10 years [inside Serbia], there was no discrimination against anyone."

More recently, there was Thomas Lubanga, the Congolese warlord accused of recruiting 30,000 child soldiers. His trial, which started in January, is the first trial of the International Criminal Court. It got off to a rocky start after a key witness took back his testimony as he sat in full view of a glaring Mr. Lubanga, who grinned as the witness recanted. The prosecution ended today and the defense is scheduled to present its case beginning in October.

What will tomorrow bring from Taylor? Don't expect contrition.

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