June 12, 2007

Not Above the Law: ex-Liberian President Charged with War Crimes

The prosecutor in the war-crimes trial of ex-Liberian president Charles Taylor discusses the tribunal's message and the challenges that lie ahead.
Web Exclusive
By Jessica Bennett
June 12, 2007 - He is accused of backing rebels in some of the most atrocious crimes of our time: the slaughter and looting of entire villages, the use of child soldiers, rape, and the systematic amputation of hands and limbs by axes and machetes. So when it was determined that Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president, would be brought to trial--the first African head of state ever to be tried for war crimes--the indictment was hailed as a landmark for war-torn western Africa. Taylor, who was elected president in 1997, would face charges of crimes against humanity by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a tribunal created by the United Nations to seek justice for Taylor's role (which prosecutors have described as "the very worst humans are capable of”) in the neighboring nation's 10-year civil war.

But last Monday, the 59-year-old Taylor plunged the opening day of his trial into chaos, boycotting the hearing and firing his court-appointed lawyer, who walked out of the courtroom after receiving word that Taylor planned to represent himself. And though the trial (which is taking place at the International Criminal Court in The Hague) was expected to be a challenge, the disruption raised questions about how the process would work, and highlighted the difficulties in trying complex international cases. It also drew comparisons to the theatrical trial of former Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic. Stephen Rapp, the prosecutor in Taylor’s case and the former chief prosecutor in the Rwandan genocide tribunal, addressed those questions with NEWSWEEK's Jessica Bennett. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: What was your reaction to day one of the trial, and is it a sign of things to come?
Stephen Rapp: We [know] that in all of these international trials you have situations where the accused decide to thumb their nose at the process, and you just have to be ready to accept that. But I was happy we were able to present our case and lay out the evidence that we think is powerful and compelling.
Will Taylor be allowed to represent himself?
I doubt it. The judges are going to have to make a decision about that, and I think they'd be more inclined, if worst came to worst, to appoint a new counsel for him. [The court next meets in late June.]
What's the message of this trial?
The big message is that no individual is above the law. But another clear message I think resonates in Darfur and other places where individuals think they'll get away with [crimes against humanity] and may even be able to arrange for a safe exile out is that those kinds of arrangements don't work. At the end of the day, the pressure internationally is so great that countries have to give up these people that are accused of these serious offenses.
Has that put dictators on notice?
Yes, absolutely. And we're not just talking Africa, but other places as well. I think the news is that as people become aware of the charges and the allegations and the crimes, eventually the pressure builds to the point that their cohorts give them up. And those who think that by putting an indictment out hurts the chances for peace I think have discovered that actually in the end it aids the cause for peace. These individuals end up losing support and legitimacy they had beforehand.

You were the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. What are the biggest challenges when dealing with these kind of high-profile cases?The biggest challenge is the insider-witness challenge. Taylor obviously never set foot in Sierra Leone, but we think there's abundant evidence of all the ways that he assisted and aided and abetted and indeed planned the war, and used the rebel army essentially as his own. And we have multiple witnesses to prove every part of it.
Are those witnesses in danger?
The witnesses do feel themselves in threat, and there are issues of how to protect them once their identities are disclosed to the accused, and whether you can protect them in the long run, and find them a home somewhere else. That's always a difficulty when you're in the international system and you've got to deal with getting people immigration status in another country to protect them. In many cases, you have to deal with the fact that an insider could be arguably implicated in the crime and therefore not eligible for refugee status.
How will you protect them?
The court has already relocated 15 witnesses in earlier cases, so it can be done and we're working through that.

How will the prosecution link Taylor's alleged participation in the crimes and the crimes themselves?
There are communications and radio operators who were his key aids, his eyes and ears, both when he was a rebel leader and president. And there are minutes and records regarding their trips to see Taylor, what he told them in these, how many diamonds they delivered to him and how many weapons he sent them. And then there are insiders in Liberia who can describe weaponry supplies and other support given to them throughout the conflict. And if that's not enough, we have the fact that throughout this entire period, he was receiving regular notice of what the [Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone] was doing and continued to support them.

There's some concern that Taylor's trial could follow the trajectory of Slobodan Milosevic's. What was the major fault of that trial, and what's being done in this case to prevent that?
The real complication with the Milosevic trial was Milosevic's health, which limited the number of days they could sit [in court] dramatically. He was also of course his own attorney, so they had that problem. In Taylor's case, we don't have a health problem, and we don't have self-representation unless the judges approve it. Another issue in [Milosevic's] case was that the chief judge died, and to avoid that situation, though it's costing us some money, we've asked the United Nations to appoint a fourth judge to sit as an alternate throughout the trial just in the unfortunate and indeed unforeseen event that one of the other judges didn't end up finishing.

Why isn't Taylor being tried in Sierra Leone?
Leaders in the region expressed concern about having him tried there for the potential destabilizing effect it could have on the region.

But does holding trial in Europe run the risk of isolating the victims from the process? What's being done to ensure awareness?
We usually like to have our trials in-country, where they're accessible to the victims and close to the scene of the crime. But if that's not possible, we extend outreach programs all over the country describing what was going on and showing videos. We've also received grant funding for three journalists from Sierra Leone and three from Liberia to come to The Hague for two or three months and cover the trial.

The Special Court is funded by contributions from other governments. Is there worry that the funding could potentially run out?
I don't think so. Back in 2004 the court had a financial crisis and the U.N. came through with a grant. And though they said that would never happen again, I don't think realistically the world community would let us run out of money. But we obviously don't want to face that prospect. So my challenge, as a prosecutor, goes beyond even being in the court. I have to make sure we've got the money to try these cases.

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