Human Rights Monitor
Litany of horrors at war crimes trial
The war crimes trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor began with a catalog of horrors, as prosecutors at a U.N.-backed court here accused him of subjecting tens of thousands of civilians to a systematic campaign of murder, sexual abuse, amputation and slave labor. Unleashing rampaging guerrillas and child soldiers in the neighboring country of Sierra Leone, Taylor oversaw atrocities that displayed "the very worst humans are capable of doing to one another," said prosecutor Stephen Rapp in his opening statement.
Taylor, who refused to appear in court, is charged with crimes against humanity by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a tribunal created by the United Nations to seek justice for a desperately poor country that endured mayhem between 1996 and 2002 when Taylor was an emblematic regional despot. Taylor, 59, sent word that he would not be in court because he had been denied adequate time and resources to prepare his defense since his arrest last year. Taylor announced in a letter read by his lawyer, Karim Khan, that he had dismissed Khan and planned to represent himself.
"I cannot participate in a charade that does injustice to the people of Liberia, and Sierra Leone, and the people of Africa, and the international community in whose name this court claims to speak," Taylor said. "I choose not to be a fig leaf of legitimacy for this process." The announcement set off a chaotic and increasingly heated exchange between Khan and the presiding judge, Julia Sebutinde of Uganda. Khan's attempts at a dramatic departure were blocked by admonitions from Sebutinde, who warned that he was on the verge of contempt of court.
Finally, the three-judge panel allowed Khan to leave, and a junior defense attorney remained to represent the imprisoned former warlord. The judges ordered court officials to respond to Taylor's complaints by granting him more time to prepare his case and pay for a lawyer in Sierra Leone to travel to The Hague to consult with the defendant. The disruption was partly a result of theatrics by Taylor that resembled the political grandstanding by Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb strongman, during a lengthy trial here that ended when he died last year.
The stumbles highlighted the difficulties in trying complex international cases. Prosecutors have made an effort to keep the prosecution against Taylor streamlined and focused, mindful of the way the voluminous Milosevic case dragged on, Rapp said in a phone interview. "We've got 18 months to do it," he said. "We don't want to be in a situation of using up all our time and only presenting half of what's essential. So we have to use every minute as wisely as possible."Procedural issues and political maneuvering did not detract from the tragic sweep of the case against Taylor lay out. Rapp described how Taylor's bloody rise to power in a civil war in Liberia, where he was ultimately elected president in 1997, interwove with his close alliance with the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone.
Although Taylor is being charged only with crimes in Sierra Leone, prosecutors argue that his tactics in his native Liberia foreshadowed the pattern of atrocities for which he is now on trial. Rapp alleged that Taylor entered into a "joint criminal enterprise" with Foday Sankoh and other Sierra Leone rebel leaders to terrorize civilians. Taylor trained, armed and controlled the rebels, prosecutors said, citing the use of go-betweens, meetings, letters and diamond shipments and other evidence to show Taylor's direct involvement in and knowledge of crimes in the neighboring country. The horrors mounted in 1996 and 1997, Rapp charged, when the Taylor-backed rebels escalated the slaughter and looting of entire villages, forced women and girls into sexual slavery and engaged in systematic amputations as they taunted victims to ask their president for new limbs.
A peak of savagery came during a rebel invasion of Freetown, the Sierra Leone capital, in 1999, an operation assisted by a contingent of Liberian fighters, asserted prosecutor Mohamed Bangura of Sierra Leone.
"We will hear evidence that the city's hospitals and clinics were full beyond capacity with wounded and dying," he said. "Waves of freshly amputated civilians began streaming into the city, sending a grim reminder that the invaders were still close…. The scale of the invasion of
Freetown was unmatched: burning, killing, amputation, abduction, looting, abuse of women."Taylor eventually was overthrown by rivals in Liberia. He went into exile in Nigeria in 2003 soon after the international charges were filed. Before fleeing his homeland, he ordered the assassinations of several former henchmen to prevent them from talking, prosecutors alleged. Now it remains to be seen whether Taylor will agree to take part in the attempt to judge him.
"The people of Sierra Leone have a saying: No matter how long the night is, light will come," Bangura told the court. "For years, the accused's crimes have remained in the dark. Today we start to shed light on his responsibility for the suffering of the people of Sierra Leone."
Source: Las Angels Times
Compiled by: Law Desk