Monday, June 04, 2007

Liberia's Taylor absent as war crimes trial starts

THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Liberia's former President Charles Taylor boycotted the opening of his trial in The Hague for war crimes in Sierra Leone on Monday, saying he had lost faith in the U.N.-backed court.

"I cannot participate in a charade that does no justice to the people of Liberia and Sierra Leone," the Liberian warlord said in a letter read by a defense lawyer, who said Taylor now wanted to represent himself.

"I choose not to be a figleaf of legitimacy for this court," Taylor said in the letter.

Taylor, 59, faces charges of instigating murder, rape, mutilation and the recruitment of child soldiers in the 1991-2002 civil war that left 50,000 dead.

He has pleaded not guilty to 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in a case that prosecutors and human rights campaigners hope will send a signal that nobody can escape punishment for atrocities, including heads of state.

Even among Africa's horrific wars, the fighting in Sierra Leone stood out for its exceptional brutality -- casual murder, mass rapes, the hacking of limbs from civilians and the press ganging of child soldiers as young as eight.

Presiding Justice Julia Sebutinde said the trial would continue despite Taylor's failure to attend, as the session quickly got bogged in legal arguments that delayed the prosecution's opening presentation.

"Sanity will return to this court," Sebutinde commented at one point. 

Prosecutors state in the indictment that Taylor sought to gain control of Sierra Leone's mineral wealth, particularly its diamond mines, and destabilize the Freetown government, to boost his own regional influence.

They argue that Taylor supported and directed Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels as they carried out a campaign of terror against Sierra Leone's civilians. Prosecutors say he failed to use his power to prevent war crimes being committed.

Taylor's defense does not dispute the horrors, but says he was not giving orders to fighters in Sierra Leone, supplying weapons to the rebels or recruiting child soldiers.

It says the prosecution cannot prove his involvement during the period of the charges, which start from 1996, and says his contacts with the RUF after that were solely aimed at bringing regional peace.

Taylor invaded Liberia with a rebel force in 1989 to end a dictatorship and was elected president in 1997. His enemies regrouped abroad and their fighters forced him from Monrovia in 2003, first to refuge in Nigeria.

Taylor was handed over by the Nigerians under international pressure. In the past, ousted African rulers often lived out their lives in comfortable exile.

The Special Court aims to complete Taylor's trial quickly and hopes to avoid the disappointment felt when former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic died months before a verdict after a trial of more than four years.

Link to Liberia's Taylor absent as war crimes trial starts | Reuters