Former Liberian president boycotts own war crimes trial

Charles Taylor fires lawyer, demands to represent self in case against him for Sierra Leone atrocities; court orders trial to continue.

charles taylor 88 (photo credit: )
charles taylor 88
(photo credit: )
Former Liberian President Charles Taylor boycotted and his court-appointed lawyer walked out of the courtroom Monday in a dramatic start to the landmark first international war crimes trial of a former African leader. Lawyer Karim Khan said Taylor had fired him and wanted to act has 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, saying Taylor's objections that he did not believe he could receive a fair trial could be dealt with later. Apologizing and defying threats of contempt of court, Khan gathered his defense files and left the room, ignoring increasingly testy instructions from the judges to sit down. The court ordered the trial to continue, and Chief Prosecutor Stephen Rapp began his opening statement. Taylor, 59, who has pleaded not guilty to 11 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment if convicted. The prosecution had been scheduled to make a four-hour opening statement Monday, after which the case was due to adjourn for three weeks. It was unclear who would be sitting on the defense bench when it resumes June 25. The trial was expected to last 18 months. Taylor was not in court Monday, but in a letter to the court read earlier by Khan, he claimed he had been prevented from seeing his preferred lawyer and that his one court-appointed attorney was heavily outgunned by the prosecution team of nine. "It is with great regret that I must decline to attend any further proceedings in this case," Taylor said. "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." Taylor's supporters had complained that the defense team has not had enough time to prepare. Rapp disputed Taylor's assertion that he lacked an adequate defense, noting that Taylor had been assigned a lawyer, assistant attorneys, a special investigator and court funds. "Everything that can be done is being done," Rapp told the court. Sebutinde, the presiding judge, repeatedly interrupted Khan's reading of Taylor's letter, demanding a to-the-point explanation for Taylor's absence. "We are not interested in political speeches," she told the lawyer. The trial had been expected to be difficult and complex even before Monday's developments raised more questions about how the process would work. Despite the difficulties, though, the trial has been hailed as a watershed for war-torn western Africa and its people. "It's a time in the history of Africa that the leaders ... go on notice that they just cannot destroy their own people for whatever purpose," said David Crane, a former chief prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone. 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 - killed 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. Many will testify anonymously for fears of reprisals from Taylor supporters, and some will be put in witness protection schemes after giving evidence. "Prosecutors will have to prove that the linkage exists between Taylor's alleged participation in the crimes and the crimes themselves," said Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch. "There is no question these kinds of cases are difficult, they are complex." That complexity was best underscored by the ill-fated case against former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, whose genocide trial dragged on for four years at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal before being aborted weeks from a verdict when Milosevic died in his cell. Taylor's supporters, including his daughter Charen Taylor, who grew up in the United States and dropped out of college to help organize his defense, say Taylor has been unfairly targeted by prosecutors. "He's taking the blame for what others did," she said. In the Liberian capital, Monrovia, supporters have put up billboards showing Taylor waving triumphantly next to the words: "God willing, I shall return." Taylor, a former warlord who was elected Liberia's president in 1997, was indicted in 2003, accused of sponsoring neighboring Sierra Leone's rebel Revolutionary United Front in exchange for diamonds. Taylor agreed to give up power and go into exile, but was arrested in Nigeria in March 2006. He was transferred to The Hague a year ago amid fears his trial in Sierra Leone could trigger fresh violence in the region. His trial will take place in a court room rented from the International Criminal Court.