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Liberia's Taylor boycotts his own war crimes trial

Liberia's Taylor boycotts his own war crimes trial

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THE HAGUE, Netherlands - Former Liberian President Charles Taylor plunged the start of his landmark war crimes trial into chaos on Monday by boycotting the hearing and firing his lawyer, saying he did not believe he would get a fair trial.

Taylor, 59, is accused of arming and controlling rebels who raped, mutilated and enslaved civilians during the 10-year civil war in Liberia's neighbor Sierra Leone, which ended in 2002. He has pleaded not guilty to 11 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

He also is linked to brutality in his own country, but Liberians have opted for a truth and reconciliation commission rather than a court.

Taylor refused to leave his jail cell to attend the start of his trial. In a letter to the court, he said he did not believe he could get a fair trial because he was being denied enough time and money for an adequate defense.

Taylor's court-appointed lawyer, Karim Khan, delivered the news to judges at the Special Court for Sierra Leone before gathering up his papers and leaving. The presiding judge, Julia Sebutinde, ordered proceedings to continue.

Taylor complained in the letter that his single defense attorney was heavily outgunned by the nine-member prosecution team. Taylor has up to $2 million to spend on defense for the trial, according to prosecutors.

"This is neither fair nor just," Taylor wrote. "I cannot participate in a charade that does injustice to the people of Sierra Leone."

Prosecutor Stephen Rapp went ahead with his opening statement after Khan walked out, outlining atrocities committed by rebels and saying he would call witnesses who will directly link them to Taylor.

The Liberian leader shipped rebels arms, ammunition and supplies such as alcohol and drugs used to desensitize children forced to fight. In return he got diamonds, often mined by slave laborers.

Rebel attackers "would mutilate, amputating arms, limbs, gouging eyes," Rapp said. Child soldiers were sometimes forced to kill their own parents. Women were repeatedly raped and forced into sexual slavery.

A conviction, Rapp told the court, "will not bring back the dead from their graves, nor give back limbs to the thousands of amputees. ... It will not give back the childhoods to countless boys and girls," but would give "some small measure of closure" to the people of Sierra Leone.

In Sierra Leone Monday, at the complex where the court trying him at The Hague usually sits, school children, researchers, rights activists and others watched Monday's proceedings via satellite hookup.

"I believe that if Charles Taylor is to be tried the truth will be out about the part he played during our rebel war and justice will be done," said Fatmata Kamara, a 17-year-old high school student.

At the Liberian capital's largest cemetery, where most of the tombstones date from the country's 14-year civil war, four gravediggers listened to radio reports of the trial.

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 and quit and went into exile in Nigeria after being indicted in 2003.

He was arrested in 2006 and transferred to The Hague a year ago amid fears his trial in Sierra Leone could trigger fresh violence in the region.

Khan said Taylor had been prevented from seeing a court official mandated with making sure he is properly defended.

Sebutinde called Taylor's inability to see the court official "worrying" and ordered court staff to arrange for the official, Vincent Nmehielle, to fly from Sierra Leone to meet with the defendant.

Speaking after the hearing, Prosecutor Stephen Rapp dismissed Taylor's concerns as administrative issues blown out of proportion to obstruct the case.

But defense attorney Khan said the protest "is not defense counsel making some cheap trick."

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," Khan said.

Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch conceded that Khan's courtroom drama "certainly drew a lot of attention and tried to shift focus from the presentation of the prosecutor."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a statement called the start of Taylor's trial, "a significant move toward peace and reconciliation in Sierra Leone and in the region."

The court has no death sentence and no limit to the number of years in prison he could be sentenced to if convicted.

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Associated Press writers Rukmini Callimachi in Monrovia, Liberia, and Clarence Roy-Macaulay in Freetown, Sierra Leone contributed to this report.

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