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Taylor Trial Drama

Former African ruler fails to show up for start of trial, while his lawyer walks out of court after confrontation with judge.
By Katy Glassborow
The first-ever war crimes trial hosted at the International Criminal Court, ICC, got off to a dramatic start on Monday, June 4, when former Liberian president Charles Taylor refused to attend the first day and dismissed his lawyer.

There was also a fiery confrontation between Karim Khan, Taylor’s lawyer, and presiding judge Julia Sebutinde, which ended with the British lawyer defying the judge and walking out of court.

Taylor is being tried by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, 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.

In Taylor’s absence, Khan read out a letter from his client in which the ex-president said he would not receive a fair trial before the Special Court.

“I cannot participate in a charade that does injustice to the people of Sierra Leone and Liberia; and the people of Africa; and a disservice to the international community in whose name this court claims to speak,” wrote Taylor. “I choose not to be the fig leaf of legitimacy for this process.”

Taylor 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.

In his letter, Taylor said that Khan lacks the time and resources to mount an adequate defence – pointing out that his lawyer works virtually alone while prosecutors have a team of nine lawyers.

The defence was given an international investigator in March 2007 and a local investigator in Liberia just last month.

“It is not justice to emaciate my defence to an extent that I am unable to launch an effective defence,” Taylor wrote. “It is not justice to throw all rights to a fair trial to the wind in a headlong rush to trial.”

Tensions in the court rose higher when Judge Sebutinde ordered prosecutor Stephen Rapp to deliver his opening statement in the absence of Taylor and Khan to continue representing him for the duration of the day-long hearing.

But Khan refused to stay on or take his seat, saying “counsel is not hired help” and that he could not be forced to ignore Taylor’s instructions that he step down. Judge Sebutinde then warned Khan that was verging on contempt of court, accusing him of defiance.

After a further terse exchange, Khan left the court, insisting his client’s instructions should take precedence over a court order.

The trial then resumed with Rapp’s opening statement during which he outlined the prosecution case and claims that Taylor was responsible for attempts to take over physical and political control of Sierra Leone to exploit its natural resources and install a government friendly to Liberia.

Avi Singh, one of two legal assistants working with Khan, told IWPR that Taylor had been looking forward to his trial but had lost faith in the system.

Singh said Taylor is willing to take part but only if given an adequate amount of time, and resources, to prepare.

Asked if Taylor could be tried in his absence, Singh said the former president had been warned this was a possibility.

Singh said Taylor will now represent himself but will not participate in the process.

Some commentators suggested on Monday that Taylor’s actions are geared towards delaying his trial. However, William Schabas, director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights, disagrees saying Taylor’s is clearly condemning the Special Court as illegitimate because of its meagre defence resources.

Justice Richard Goldstone, the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda tribunals chief prosecutor, told IWPR that he believes the trial should go ahead, but stressed that the Special Court needs to "go out of its way to make sure Taylor gets adequate defence".

Goldstone said the court must investigate his complaints and take action if they are well founded, adding Taylor should be offered CCTV to monitor the trial and also be given legal advice.

Unlike some other high-profile suspects tried in international courts, Taylor said in the letter read by Khan that at one time he "had confidence in the court's ability to dispense justice in a fair and impartial manner", but that "over time it has become clear that such confidence is misplaced".

Goldstone, however, believes Taylor is still getting a fair trial, telling IWPR that the former president “has no grounds for impugning the fairness of the trial because judges and prosecutors have done nothing to jeopardise the trial”.

Some commentators, however, were surprised that after Khan left the courtroom, Judge Sebutinde allowed the proceedings to continue.

Schabas believes the hearing should have been suspended to ensure Taylor has adequate representation from the very beginning.

"It is not proper for the trial to go much further without a resolution, otherwise it amounts to an inabsentia trial," he said.

Prosecutors had hoped the trial would be over in a relatively-quick 18 months, avoiding the delays that became so notorious in the case against another former head of state – ex-Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic.

His trial at the ICTY dragged on for four years and ended with his death in custody. Milosevic had two court appointed lawyers with whom he refused to meet.

Katy Glassborow and Lisa Clifford are IWPR reporters in The Hague.

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