In Taylor Trial, a Hope to Avoid Past Snafus

As the Special Court in Sierra Leone hears the case against Charles Taylor, court officials are looking at other recent examples to avoid past mistakes. International law experts say they are hoping the trial won't drag on too long, as was the case against Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, who died before his case came to a ruling. The challenge, they say, is to maintain order and avoid courtroom antics such as those plaguing the trial against Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

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Former Liberian President Charles Taylor is reportedly looking for defense lawyers a day after pleading not guilty to war crimes charges. He's being held by an UN-backed court in Sierra Leone. Taylor's trial is the latest test case for international war crimes tribunals.

As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, court officers have learned some lessons from other major cases, including the trial of Saddam Hussein and the case against Slobodan Milosevic, who died in the midst of his trial.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

Experts in this new and growing field of international war crimes law will be watching the Charles Taylor proceedings carefully.

Mr. ARYEH NEIER (Open Society Justice Initiative): The cause of international justice is very much hanging on an effort to get the Taylor case right.

Aryeh Neier, of Open Society's Justice Initiative, says prosecutors in the Taylor case need to move things along quickly, limit the number the witnesses, and keep the case narrowly focused.

Mr. NEIER: And I also think that it's crucial that the judges who should preside should have learned from the previous trials that took place and maintain more control in the courtroom than was the case with Milosevic or than has been the case with Saddam Hussein.

KELEMEN: Already on the first day of Charles Taylor's case, the Judge made clear he would do his best to prevent any grandstanding. The Taylor indictment has also been trimmed down and is much more limited than that against Slobodan Milosevic, who faced charges stemming from three wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.

A deputy prosecutor from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, David Tolbert, says the idea behind that was to provide victims with the full story.

Mr. DAVID TOLBERT (International Criminal Tribunal): That I think the Milosevic case has done very well. And even though it had a premature end, a tremendous record was built.

KELEMEN: But Milosevic's death did provoke a lot of criticism that the trial dragged on too long. Pierre Prosper, the former U.S. Ambassador at Large for War Crimes, says the idea of the Sierra Leone court was not to document history, but to bring criminals to justice more quickly than the UN tribunals for Yugoslavia Rwanda did.

Mr. PIERRE PROSPER (U.S. Ambassador at Large for War Crimes): We thought that we could do something that it was more cost effective and be able to move more quickly. And so far we're seeing this bear fruit.

KELEMEN: Prosper was a key player in setting up the court in Sierra Leone, an UN-backed hybrid that includes local judges.

Mr. PROSPER: We designed this court so that it would go after those that bear the greatest responsibility, really the key individuals. Our idea all along was that these international type of tribunals should go after the leadership, and then we designed more domestic processes that would deal with the mid-level and lower level people.

KELEMEN: The first prosecutor of the court, American David Crane, liked the new arrangement.

Mr. DAVID CRANE (Sierra Leone war crimes tribunal): The other tribunals, the ad hoc tribunals who were first-evers, had broader mandates. In some cases they may have bit off more than they could chew. I had a very specific mandate, specific jurisdiction, took out of the system 20 of those who really did bear the greatest responsibility that are either indicted, that are working for us.

KELEMEN: He says the prosecutor has key witnesses under protection, ready to turn on Taylor.

The U.S. government prefers these types of ad hoc tribunals, arguing there's no one size fits all international justice system. But Sandy Hodgkinson, of the State Department's War Crimes Office, says experts do share their thoughts on what works and what doesn't.

Ms. SANDY HODGKINSON (U.S. State Department War Crimes Office): Over the past decade, there have been really tremendous advances, not only in how a trial can be conducted more expediently across the board, no matter what type of a tribunal it is, but also there has been the development of a cadre of expert professionals in the field, both on the defense side and on the prosecution side, who have been able to successfully move from one court to another bringing the lessons they've learned.

KELEMEN: And Diane Orentlicher, an international law professor at American University, says such courts are having a deterrent effect.

Ms. DIANE ORENTLICHER (Professor, American University): We're living in a different world today. Charles Taylor has been indicted, a former Prime Minister of Rwanda has pleaded guilty to genocide, the United Nations recently acted to establish a new war crimes tribunal for Lebanon. And so, we're seeing a very different response to mass atrocities then we were accustomed to seeing for many, many years.

KELEMEN: Another key lesson, she says, is to engage the community where the abuses occurred, something the Sierra Leone has tried to do but may have a hard time continuing if, as expected, the case against Charles Taylor moves to The Hague for security reasons.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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