Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Charles Taylor trial starts in The Hague

The trial of Charles Taylor opened yesterday in The Hague with the dramatic boycott of proceedings by the 59 year old former Liberian dictator. Instead his lawyer read out a letter on Taylor’s behalf. In the letter Taylor denounced the court, claimed he could not receive a fair trial and terminated his participation by dismissing his lead counsel. "I cannot take part in this charade that does injustice to the people of Liberia and the people of Sierra Leone," he said in the letter. "I choose not to be a fig-leaf of legitimacy for this process."

Taylor’s lawyer Karim Kahn then walked out of the room in defiance of a court order to continue to represent Taylor for the day. Julia Sebutinde, the British-trained Ugandan presiding judge, said the trial would continue despite Taylor's failure to attend, as the session quickly got bogged down in legal arguments that delayed the prosecution's opening presentation. The case then began with an overview of the history, a description of the crimes and a description of the individual liability for which Taylor could be held responsible.

Charles Taylor has been indicted on 11 charges, including terrorism, murder, rape, sexual slavery, mutilation and recruiting child soldiers linked to his alleged support for rebels in Sierra Leone's civil war. The prosecution claims to have overwhelming evidence that holds Taylor conducted war crimes against Sierra Leone’s civilian population. He is being tried in the Special Court for Sierra Leone in offices borrowed from the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone was set up joint by the UN and Sierra Leone. It is an independent judicial body set up to "try those who bear greatest responsibility" for the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Sierra Leone after 1996 during the Civil War that ravaged that country. So far, eleven people have been charged with offences. Ten of these trials have taken place in the capital Freetown but Taylor’s high profile trial was moved out of Sierra Leone due to fears that militias still loyal to Taylor might attack the court room. Proceedings are been broadcast live on four giant screens in Freetown.

Charles Taylor is the first African head of state to go on trial for war crimes before an international tribunal. He is currently being held in the same prison where former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic was held when he died in 2006. This is not the first time Taylor has been in jail. In 1985, he was imprisoned in Massachusetts after he stole $900,000 in Liberian government funds in the US. He escaped after a year and returned to Africa.

Taylor first came to world prominence when he launched a revolt from the Ivory Coast which stormed Liberia’s capital Monrovia in 1989. He overthrew former leader Samuel Doe and kept control of the country in a civil war which lasted through the early 1990s. Although he cemented his position by winning an election in 1996, he was eventually ousted by Liberian rebels and Taylor accepted asylum in Nigeria in 2003. Liberia requested Nigeria to extradite him and in 2004 he was released into the custody of the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

Human rights organisations are hoping his trial sends a message to other dictators that no-one can escape punishment for atrocities. Human Rights Watch say the case provides an important chance for victims to see justice done. “The trial of a former president associated with human rights abuses across West Africa represents a break from the past,” said Elise Keppler, counsel with Human Rights Watch’s International Justice Program. “All too often, there has been no justice for victims of serious human rights violations. Taylor’s trial puts would-be perpetrators on notice.”

Taylor has denied all 11 charges. When the case for the prosecution finally started, Chief Prosecutor Stephen Rapp alleged that Taylor waged a campaign of terror against the civilian population of Sierra Leone by arming and training the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel force which murdered and mutilated civilians, raped women and recruited child soldiers. Taylor armed the RUF in exchange for diamonds which he trafficked on the black market despite a ban on conflict diamonds. The decade long war claimed 60,000 deaths and an untold number of mutilations.

If convicted, he is likely to serve his sentence in the UK. Last year British foreign secretary Margaret Beckett said London has agreed to a request from former UN chief Kofi Annan to imprison him if convicted. The tribunal has wide powers of sentencing. It statutes allow a sentence of "imprisonment for a specified number of years" without giving a maximum. This means he could go to prison for life. The trial is expected to last 12 to 18 months.

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