Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Prosecutor sees rapid trial of Charles Taylor

THE HAGUE, May 7 (Reuters) - The U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone has learned the lessons from other tribunals and is ready for a rapid war crimes trial for former Liberian President Charles Taylor, the court's prosecutor said on Monday.

Taylor, indicted on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for stoking civil war in Sierra Leone through an illicit trade in guns for diamonds, is going on trial in The Hague on June 4.

He was moved to The Hague in June 2006 due to fears a trial in Freetown could spur unrest in Sierra Leone or Liberia.

The court's prosecutor Stephen Rapp told Reuters he expected the trial to be concluded in about 18 months.

"That's a very rapid period," he said. "In other cases like that of (former Yugoslav President Slobodan) Milosevic it took four years and didn't complete. But we believe that the judges have learned lessons and we have from those past experiences."

"The crucial thing is that we want to focus this case and not call one more live witness than we need to."

Milosevic died in jail in March last year before a verdict was reached in his marathon war crimes trial, prompting a storm of criticism about the fact his case was allowed to drag on for more than four years.


The Sierra Leone court held a pre-trial conference on the Taylor case on Monday, agreeing to sit five days a week with limited breaks.

"The judges certainly sent a signal that they want to work very very hard on this case. They also recognise the fact that to hear all these evidence will take some time, so they are keen not to waste any time," Rapp said.

The court indicted Taylor in March 2003 on 17 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity but condensed the charges to 11 counts in March 2006 to ensure a more focused trial.

Taylor's rise to power in 1989 led to a 14-year, on-and-off civil war in Liberia that spilled across regional borders. He fled into exile in Nigeria in 2003 but was returned to Liberia and transferred to the court in Sierra Leone in March 2006.

The court initially set April 2 as a tentative start date for the trial but later postponed it to June 4 because defence lawyers requested more time to prepare.

Taylor was present in court on Monday, wearing sun glasses because of an eye problem, his lawyers said.

Rapp said Taylor was generally in good health and his case was not complicated by health problems like that of Milosevic but the trial faced challenges in bringing witnesses and victims on a different continent.

The prosecution plans to present evidence from about 201 witnesses from Liberia and the region. Almost all of them have been guaranteed protection, Rapp said.

Taylor's defence lawyers expressed concerns that some of their witnesses might not be able to come to The Hague because of travel bans imposed on them by the U.N. Security Council dating from the time when Taylor was still a president.

Proceedings on the case are being held in the premises of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is not involved in the trial. The Security Council authorised Taylor's transfer after Britain said it would jail him if he is found guilty.

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