Global Policy Forum

Can Africa's Most Notorious Warlord Get a Fair Trial?


By Peter Mwaura

Nation - Nairobi
September 15, 2007

Charles Taylor has already been tried and found guilty of atrocities in the court of public opinion. He is as guilty as the Mungiki, and he should be shot dead. But this won't happen - he is getting a fair trial.

Mr Taylor, Africa's most notorious warlord, is accused of Mungiki-like crimes, including murder, mutilation, rape and extortion. He is being tried at the International Criminal Court building in The Hague, the Netherlands, because of security concerns in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and Monrovia in Liberia. Mr David Crane, the chief prosecutor of the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, indicted the former president of Liberia on March 3, 2003, on 17 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He later reduced the counts to 11 to make a "tighter, more concise instrument to hold this destroyer of two nations accountable."

Mr Taylor, who stepped down as Liberia's president on August 7, 2003, after the charges, initially sought asylum in Nigeria, but was arrested in 2006 as he tried to escape to Cameroon. Prof Crane, who now teaches law at Syracuse University, described him as one of the mega-murderers of the 20th century behind Mao Tse-tung, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein. He accused Mr Taylor of being among criminals who started the conflict in Sierra Leone for personal gain and geo-political control of West Africa.

Many observers have described Mr Taylor as the Hitler of Africa, and there is a lot of international pressure to try him expeditiously. Human rights lobbyists and victims of his war crimes, numbering over 1 million, are impatient to see him punished. From what has been said and written about Mr Taylor, it would seem that a fair trial is not even within the realm of possibility. But he is getting his day in court and then some. The trial, which opened on June 4 and has been adjourned and postponed three times, is expected to last until December next year, with judgement likely only by mid-2009. The adjournments and postponements have been done to ensure he gets a fair trial. The case was supposed to start on April 2, 2007, but it was postponed to June 4.

After the first day of hearing, it was adjourned until 25 July when the accused, through lawyer Karim Khan, complained that there was no "equality of arms" between the prosecution and defence teams because the prosecution team was larger and had greater legal experience. Presiding judge Sebutinde acknowledged Mr Taylor's complaints and agreed that "there has to be some equality of arms," and ordered adequate facilities be provided "without further delay" for his defence. Equality of arms refers to the rule that in an adversarial system such as Kenya's court system where the prosecution and the defence in essence fight each other to convince the judges of their version of the truth, both should be evenly matched. The court also requires that a suspect has the right to legal assistance of his own choice, including the right to have the aid provided by the court where the interests of justice so require and where the suspect does not have sufficient means to pay for it. The court is paying for Mr Taylor's defence after he claimed that he had no money. During the hearing, Mr Stephen J. Rapp, who replaced Prof Crane, indicated that although he "did not believe Mr Taylor is indigent," his office did not want to "hold up" the trial by litigating this point. He stated that if substantial assets belonging to Taylor were later found, the money would be seized and used to pay his defence team.

When the court resumed on June 25, Mr Taylor pointed out that his defence team required "a leading senior counsel at the rank of QC to properly lead the case because of its complexity and the magnitude of the case". He also wanted international investigators of the calibre of Britain's Scotland Yard and the Central Intelligence Agency of the US. JUDGE SEBUTINDE WAS A TRIFLE peeved, saying that she did not understand "this fixation with Queen's Counsel." But she knew Mr Taylor, as the accused, had rights. So she ordered that he be given enough representation.

By the time the court resumed on August 30, the former Liberian strongman had been provided with a new defence team, including Mr Courtney Griffiths, a QC, and two other world-class lawyers. The team has offices in The Hague and Monrovia. The court is now paying $100,000 (about Sh7 million) a month for Mr Taylor's defence. And the trial has been postponed until January 7 to allow the defence team to prepare for his defence. The trial is an object lesson to Africa on not only impunity, but also the rule of law, fair trial and the presumption of innocence.

More Information on International Justice
More Information on the Special Court for Sierra Leone
More Information on Charles Taylor
More Information on Sierra Leone
More Information on Liberia


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