ISS Africa
Home / Topics / International criminal justice / 31 Jul 2007: ISS Today: Sierra Leone: Turnaround in Taylor Trial, or is it?
31 Jul 2007: ISS Today: Sierra Leone: Turnaround in Taylor Trial, or is it?
31 July 2007

31 July 2007: ISS Today: Sierra Leone: Turnaround in Taylor Trial, or is it?


Former Liberian president Charles Taylor made his presence known when he made an unexpected appearance at his war crimes trial in The Hague. Arriving late as a result of alleged problems with transportation from the prison, Taylor entered a plea of ‘not guilty` to a reworded charge of sexual slavery and rape. Taylor had boycotted previous hearings since the trial began in June, claiming that he had not been given adequate defence counsel to ensure a fair trial. At the latest hearing the judges conceded this and ordered a new defence team to be assigned and that the trial be postponed until 20 August to allow the team to prepare.


Taylor is indicted on 11 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, which allegedly took place during the civil war in Sierra Leone between 1991 and 2002. He has pleaded not guilty on all counts. His trial began in Freetown, Sierra Leone, but was moved to The Hague because of fears that holding the trial in West Africa would spark renewed tensions there.


The UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone began the trial on 4 June. It got off to a turbulent start after Taylor refused to appear in court. This was followed by a dramatic walk-out by his lawyer, Karim Khan, whom Taylor had fired. Taylor initially insisted that he would be representing himself, but has since changed his mind.


Taylor`s preliminary complaint and consequent boycotting of the subsequent hearing resulted from a disagreement over funding. Having professed a lack of money, which led to the court financing his defence, Taylor, declared that funding by the court been insufficient to put together a legal team equal to that of the prosecution. Moreover, Taylor claimed to have been denied the right to meet the court`s principal defender, whose duty it was to guarantee that Taylor could prepare an adequate defence.


Taylor`s grievances about the violation of his right to a fair trial had some justification. As Judge Sebutinde postponed the case he conceded that Taylor`s rights would be violated if the defence was limited in its allowed preparation time. Another judge publicly disclosed that a surveillance camera had been placed in the room where Taylor had met with lawyers.


The Special Court for Sierra Leone was developed with the help of the United Nations to prosecute suspects for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The impetus to hold people accountable has gathered pace only fairly recently. The Nuremberg Trials at the end of World War II were the first attempt to hold perpetrators of such crimes accountable. However, these trials are often depicted as a case of ‘victor`s justice` since the defendants were arguably not given a fair trial. A culture of impunity prevailed for many years until ad hoc international tribunals were set up in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The Sierra Leone Special Court followed as a prelude to the International Criminal Court.


The resolve to hold people accountable, symbolised by these developments is laudable. The theory is that prosecutions allow a society to move on from its past through obtaining justice for victims and by re-instilling a respect for the rule of law. Such attempts must not provoke further resentment, however, or be seen as unjust and biased in countries where justice is needed; this could undermine future efforts to promote accountability.


Taylor`s latest appearance could mean that his complaints have been resolved. Yet cynics might say that this is Taylor`s way of manipulating the court and playing for time. In a disturbing development, newspaper reports have accused loyalists of hiding information that may be used against Taylor. Delays may therefore just provide more opportunities for these loyalists to conceal useful information. Whether this is so or not, the effort to ensure a fair trial has certainly created a sense of greater legitimacy for the court as it strives to put an end to Taylor`s impunity. 


Amanda Lucey, Intern, Organised Crime & Money Laundering Programme, ISS Cape Town