Taylor Again Fails to Show Up in Court

Former African leader continues to insist that he’s been denied the means to mount an effective defence.

Taylor Again Fails to Show Up in Court

Former African leader continues to insist that he’s been denied the means to mount an effective defence.

Faced with the prospect of trying an empty chair, Special Court for Sierra Leone judges on June 25 were forced to postpone the case against Charles Taylor as Liberia’s former president continued boycotting his trial.

Taylor has refused to attend the hearings - being hosted by The Hague’s International Criminal Court, ICC, saying he won’t receive a fair hearing, because the court hasn’t provided enough money for his defence.

With the prosecution ready to begin its case, it was up to the Special Court’s principal defender Vincent Nmehielle to break the news to judges.

Nmehielle said he’d spoken to Taylor that morning and been told the ex-president wouldn’t be leaving his cell in the Dutch beach resort of Scheveningen. “He said the chamber knows why he’s not in court,” said Nmehielle, whose office is charged with ensuring the rights of suspects and the accused.

The Special Court is trying Taylor, but his case was transferred to The Hague last year because of security concerns in West Africa, and now events are playing out in a courtroom belonging to the ICC.

He faces 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity including murder, rape and conscripting child soldiers. Prosecutors say he supported Revolutionary United Front, RUF, rebels in Sierra Leone who committed brutal acts against civilians, including amputations and sexual slavery.

He was elected president of Liberia in 1997 and ruled for six years before going into exile in Nigeria. He was indicted in 2003 and returned to Liberia in March 2006 where he was taken into custody by the Special Court.

Taylor also boycotted the first day of his trial on June 4 and fired his British lawyer Karim Khan, leading to the current impasse and Nmehielle being called in from the Special Court in Freetown to sort things out.

Nmehielle told the judges on June 25 that Taylor was also unhappy about the delays and would participate in his trial once his concerns are addressed.

“He asks that his defence matches the capacity of the prosecution in this enormous case,” said Nmehielle.

To replace Khan, Taylor wants a legal team comprising a leading UK barrister, another senior lawyer and two co-counsels, saying only this would match the prosecution’s array of nine lawyers.

Nmehielle also suggested there were parallels between the Taylor case and that of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, whose defence team was initially led by top British barrister Geoffrey Nice.

The public defender then went on to say a four to six week delay was needed for Taylor’s new team to be hired.

The prosecution, however, pointed out that Taylor is not entitled to choose his own lawyer and accused him of manipulating the proceedings.

“The dilemma we’re in today is of the accused’s own making,” said prosecutor Brenda Hollis. “The accused should not be allowed to benefit from a situation of his own making.”

She added that Taylor has no right to refuse to attend a criminal proceeding against him and urged the court to order him to appear.

That didn’t happen, but presiding judge Julia Sebutinde did agree that Taylor doesn’t have the option “to appear as and when he chooses to”.

She ordered that the public defender hire one lawyer to lead the Taylor defence, two co-counsels and a senior investigator by July 31.

And she also criticised Nmehielle and the Special Court’s registry, saying they’d known for months about Taylor’s financing complaints and should have done something sooner. The registry assigns legal aid to accused who can’t pay for their own defence.

“We have frowned upon undue delay in this trial, and that it comes from an institution in this court is regrettable,” said Sebutinde.

Budgets are tight in Freetown with court president Justice George Gelaga-King admitting recently that funding could run out by November.

Taylor claims he is indigent, however, the UN Security Council isn’t convinced. Members recently asked Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to establish a panel to investigate whether Taylor has investments in Nigeria that have been unfrozen. A Council resolution in 2004 ordered all governments to freeze the assets of Taylor and his immediate family.

The prosecution will now begin its case on July 3.

Lisa Clifford is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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