Disgraced Liberian Leader Stands Trial

Opening statements were to begin Monday in the United Nations-backed trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor who faces 11 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone's civil war. Prosecutors say Taylor orchestrated war crimes that include mass murder, rape, and the use of child soldiers.

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Liberia's former president, Charles Taylor, is on trial at The Hague. But he is boycotting the opening because he said he would not receive a fair trial. Taylor is the first former African head of state to face war crimes charges. They include mass murder and sexual slavery, as well as the forced recruitment of child soldiers. The 11 charges in all stemmed from a conflict in neighboring Sierra Leone.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: It's taken more than a year for Charles Taylor to come to trial. It was in April last year that the flamboyant and charismatic disgraced Liberian leader first appeared before the International War Crimes Tribunal. He stands accused of exporting Liberia's civil war across the border to its neighbor. Impassive, Charles Taylor listened to the rap sheet, read out at the Special Court for Sierra Leone in the capital Freetown.

Unidentified Woman: The statute, charges - Charles Ghankay Taylor with crimes against humanity and other serious violations of international humanitarian law.

QUIST-ARCTON: Charles Taylor denied the war crimes charges.

Mr. CHARLES TAYLOR (Former President, Liberia): I did not and could not have committed these acts against the sister Republic of Sierra Leone. I think that this is an attempt to the continued to divide the rule of the people of Liberia and Sierra Leone. And so most definitely, I am not guilty.

QUIST-ARCTON: While he was still president of Liberia, Taylor was indicted for supporting, arming and training Revolutionary United Front - RUF - rebels, across the border in Sierra Leone. They were notorious for sowing terror in their wake, keeping young girls as sex slaves, and for the brutal mutilations of their victims during the Sierra Leone conflict in the 1990s. Taylor was said to have masterminded the rebels' movements, as well as using blood diamonds -as they're called - mined in Sierra Leone to fuel civil wars on both sides of the border. The head of Taylor's legal support team in Liberia, John Richardson, backs his claim of innocence.

Mr. JOHN RICHARDSON (Legal Defense Team of Charles Taylor): All of the other indictees of the RUF have on public record made it clear he was not in charge of them. They were their own organization. So we wonder whether this is a legal matter or it's a political trial.

QUIST-ARCTON: Charles Taylor's defense team argues that it needs more time to prepare. It also claims to be at a disadvantage, because the trial was transferred from Sierra Leone to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The move was made for security reasons, because Taylor was thought to be a destabilizing influence in West Africa.

Stephen Rapp, the chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, said that Charles Taylor would get a fair trial.

Mr. STEPHEN RAPP (Chief Prosecutor, Special Court for Sierra Leone): It is absolutely necessary that justice be done, and be seen to be done in this case so at the end of the day, people can be confident in the justice of his verdict - the people of Sierra Leone, the people of the region, the people of the world.

QUIST-ARCTON: The Charles Taylor trial hinges on determining the degree to which he was allegedly involved in helping to start, prolong and deepen the vicious Sierra Leone civil war. That's the challenge for the prosecution, and it's a warning to other African leaders and rebels who are known to have committed atrocities against their people that immunity is no longer an option.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Dakar.

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Ex-Liberian Leader Defies War Crimes Tribunal

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor didn't show up for the opening of his war crimes trial, and his assigned lawyer walked out of the courtroom in a dramatic opening to the landmark first international tribunal of a former African leader.

Lawyer Karim Khan said Taylor had fired him and wanted to act as his own defense attorney. Khan walked out even though Presiding Judge Julia Sebutinde of Uganda repeatedly directed him to continue to represent Taylor, if only for the opening day.

Apologizing and defying threats of contempt of court, Khan gathered his files and left the room.

"This is not defense counsel making some cheap trick," Khan told The Associated Press outside the courtroom. 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."

The court ordered the trial to continue, and Chief Prosecutor Stephen Rapp began outlining the horrors inflicted on Sierra Leone villagers by forces allegedly under Taylor's control.

The attackers randomly murdered people and enslaved others to use as fighters, miners and farmers, Rapp said. Then "the attackers would mutilate — amputating arms, limbs, gouging eyes. Children conscripted by the attackers killing their own parents," he added.

Taylor, 59, has pleaded not guilty to 11 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The court has no death sentence and no maximum sentence if he is convicted.

The prosecution was making a four-hour opening statement Monday, after which the case was to adjourn for three weeks. It was unclear who would be sitting on the defense bench when it resumes June 25. The trial is expected to last 18 months.

In a letter read to judges by Khan, Taylor claimed he had been prevented from seeing a court official mandated with making sure he is properly defended and that his one court-appointed attorney was heavily outgunned by the prosecution team of nine.

"At one time, I had confidence in this court's ability to dispense justice. Over time, it has become clear that confidence has been misplaced," Taylor's statement said. "I will not receive a fair trial."

Sebutinde, the presiding judge, repeatedly interrupted Khan's reading of Taylor's letter, demanding an explanation for Taylor's absence.

"We are not interested in political speeches," she told the lawyer.

The atrocities in Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 civil war are well-documented. Fighters — often children drugged and turned into merciless killers at brutal rebel training camps — murdered thousands of men, women and children and mutilated more by hacking off hands and limbs with axes and machetes. Women were raped and abducted to become sex slaves.

Many victims had the initials of rebel groups carved into their skin with burning-hot bayonets. Children were sent out with burlap bags to hack off and collect limbs and were punished if the bags were not full when they returned.

When witnesses begin testifying, survivors, including amputees, will take the stand along with former allies from Taylor's inner sanctum who will be critical to proving he controlled rebels responsible for atrocities in another country.

Taylor was indicted in 2003, accused of sponsoring Sierra Leone's rebel Revolutionary United Front in exchange for diamonds. Taylor agreed to give up power and go into exile, but he was arrested in Nigeria in March 2006.

He was transferred to The Hague a year ago amid fears that his trial in Sierra Leone could trigger fresh violence in the region. His trial will take place in a courtroom rented from the International Criminal Court by the U.N.-backed court that usually sits in Sierra Leone and was established to try those held most responsible for the war.

From The Associated Press

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