Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Charles Taylor trial of brief interest to celebrity mags

The Special Court for Sierra Leone does not usually feature in world tabloid headlines nor does it typically attract the attention of supermodels and Hollywood stars. The Court has a very serious purpose:genocide. It wants to try those who bear the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian and local law in Sierra Leone since it was overrun by rebels on 30 November 1996. Its most famous case is the trial of Charles Ghankay Taylor, former President of neighbouring Liberia, who stands accused of 17 crimes against humanity including murder, rape, mutilation, sexual slavery and conscription of child soldiers by arming RUF rebels during the 1991-2001 Sierra Leone civil war.

Taylor's extended trial took a surreal edge recently with the conflicting testimony of a Hollywood star and a supermodel briefly giving case a taste of world tabloid headlines. In the last month the Court heard testimony from actress Mia Farrow which contradicted that of British model Naomi Campbell. Prosecutors had called the model to testify to provide evidence that Taylor had handled blood diamonds used to purchase weapons during the war.

The prosecution said Taylor gave a gift of diamonds to Campbell at a dinner hosted by Nelson Mandela in September 1997. The occasion was a lavish dinner in Cape Town to raise funds for the Mandela Children’s Fund. Campbell attended the dinner along with Farrow and Campbell’s former modelling agent Carole White. Campbell gave evidence on 5 August which attracted large headlines, partially because she told the Court her appearance there was a “big inconvenience” (a mistake for which she would later apologise to the Court) and partially because of the incongruity of a model giving testimony at a genocide trial. As the Washington Post noted, it’s hard to believe that these two worlds could ever collide. “That they did, however, said the Post, "is testament to beauty as both valuable currency and irresistible narcotic."

In her own evidence Campbell said she was woken up from sleep by two unknown men who handed her a pouch saying it was a gift. Because she was sleepy she didn’t ask who the men were or who gave her the pouch. She said she did not even open the pouch until the following morning she was disappointed to find a few “very small, dirty looking stones”. She said either Farrow or White suggested the stones were from Taylor and she believed so herself.

With Campbell’s testimony giving Taylor a lifeline, the Prosecution looked to White and Farrow to give them the evidence they needed. But these two only succeeded in complicating the picture as they contradicted Campbell and each other. Farrow told the court on she heard Campbell say that Taylor had given her a "huge diamond" at the dinner. She said Campbell told the story to a group of guests at breakfast the following morning. Carole White said it wasn’t a huge diamond but rather five separate pieces. She said Campbell and Taylor were seated near each other during the dinner and started flirting. White said Campbell then whispered to her Taylor was going to give her diamonds and she was very excited at the prospect.

Campbell told the court that she later gave the diamonds to Jeremy Ractliffe, a representative of a Mandela charity. Ractliffe said he worried the gift would damage reputations and might be illegal, so he kept the diamonds and did not tell anyone. He issued a statement last week saying that following Campbell's testimony he had now handed over to authorities three alleged "blood diamonds" given to him by the model. South African police confirmed their authenticity.

The appearance of the beautiful and wealthy Western women and their precious stones overshadowed most of the other recent testimony in the trial. Former RUF leader Issa Hassan Sesay, who has already been convicted by the Court for his part in the atrocities, has been on the stand for three weeks. He refuted claims Taylor had directed the rebels when they entered the capital Freetown in 1999. The prosecution preferred to hammer him on his earlier statements Taylor had directed the 1998 attack on diamond-rich town of Kono. Sesay's testimony concludes this week.

It is more difficult to say how much longer will go on for as proceedings head towards the seven year mark. Taylor was indicted on 7 March 2003, when he was still President. The indictment was announced three months later on his first trip outside of Liberia. In August Charles Taylor resigned as president and went into exile in Nigeria. Nigeria finally transferred him to the Special Court in March 2006. Due to concerns about security in Sierra Leone, the Special Court arranged for the trial to be held at The Hague where he was transferred to in June 2006. After legal wrangling, the Prosecution re-opened witness testimony on in January 2008. They closed their case 13 months later after having presented testimony from 91 witnesses. The Defence opened their case on 13 July 2009. The Prosecution also reopened its case to call Campbell, Farrow and White. While the trial briefly reached the women's magazines, it will now once again retreat into international law journals, until the day the judges make their final decision.

1 comment:

Legal Eagle said...

Kinda sad that it takes the entry of celebrities into the mix to make it world news of interest.