Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Prosecutor sees progress in Taylor trial

Former Liberian president Charles TaylorThe prosecutor in the special Sierra Leone tribunal said today he was optimistic that the trial of Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president accused of war crimes, will proceed on schedule despite recent delays.

Stephen Rapp, formerly a US attorney in Iowa, told Guardian Unlimited that Mr Taylor's trial should resume at The Hague next month.

"I see the trial proceeding," Mr Rapp said during a visit to London. "The challenge is that he needs a new defence team. The judge has ordered legal aid to be substantially increased to $100,000 a month and work is under way to get that team in place this month for the next session on August 20."

Mr Taylor sacked his lawyer when his trial opened in June and boycotted the special UN-backed court because, he said, he wanted a stronger legal team. Mr Taylor subsequently appeared before the court last week to re-enter a not guilty plea to a count of sexual slavery, which had been slightly reworded in an amended indictment.

The special court has since agreed to a new "financial package" of $100,000 (£50,000) a month so that he can hire a top legal team for his defence. The 59-year-old Mr Taylor could go through $2m depending on how long his trial takes. Estimates range from 12 to 18 months.

Mr Taylor faces 11 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for allegedly backing the Revolutionary United Front, a rebel group that killed, maimed and raped thousands of Sierra Leoneans during a war that lasted 11 years and ended in 2002 after British military intervention.

If Mr Taylor is found guilty, he is likely to spend the rest of his life in a British jail. Today, the court is expected to initial an agreement with the British authorities for the UK to accept him as a prisoner.

The court has been criticised for being too expensive and too slow in bringing people to trial. Set up in 2002, the ad-hoc court consisting of international and Sierra Leonean judges issued its first verdicts last month, when three militia leaders were found guilty of war crimes, including mutilation, rape and the use of child soldiers in Sierra Leone's civil war. The court made legal history as it was the first time an international tribunal ruled on the charge of recruitment of child soldiers.

The president of the special court, Justice George Gelaga King, rejected charges of slowness.

"When the special court was set up in 2002, it had to start from scratch. It was given 11 and a half acres of virgin jungle land, there was no electricity and no water. It took time to put facilities in place," he said. "The court ought to be commended for working in difficult and adverse circumstances."

The cost of the court from 2002 to 2009, when it is expected to wind up, is put at $102m. Some Sierra Leoneans wonder whether the money could have been better spent on rebuilding their shattered country rather than on a court where three-quarters of the judges are foreign.

Holding Mr Taylor's trial at The Hague has added to the costs, but it was felt by the Sierra Leonean government and the UN security council that holding the trial in Freetown, where the court is based, would be too dangerous. Both the Liberian and Sierra Leonean governments feared that a trial in west Africa might spark fresh unrest by rousing Mr Taylor's supporters, many of whom are former child soldiers.

"There is peace in Sierra Leone, but the situation is not 100% stable," said Judge King. "It is very delicate."

Human rights groups have also faulted the tribunal for failing to spread the word to the public in Sierra Leone and Liberia about its work.

"It's important for people to know that Charles Taylor is being held to account," said Tania Bernath, an Amnesty International researcher on Sierra Leone.

If people are failing to get the correct information from the tribunal, she said, Taylor supporters in Liberia could manipulate public opinion. There have been rumours, for example, that Mr Taylor is being starved by the court.

Part of the reason for members of the special court visiting London and other capitals is to raise money. The court depends on voluntary contributions, with the US and the UK stumping up two-thirds of the money. The court needs to raise more cash or it will run out by the end of October.

"We need $89m over the next three years," Mr Rapp said. "Of the $89m we've raised $26-27m, so there's $60m to go. It does involve me talking to people and telling them why it's important for countries to support the court."

Prosecutor sees progress in Taylor trial | Special reports | Guardian Unlimited