Charles Taylor’s war crimes trial closes

Liberian ex-president Charles Taylor’s trial for arming Sierra Leone rebels who paid him in blood diamonds closed on Friday with prosecutors urging a guilty verdict for “horrific crimes”.

“We ask you to enter convictions on all of the counts of the indictment,” prosecutor Brenda Hollis said on the last day of the trial that started more than three years ago before the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

“The evidence in this case … proves this accused is guilty beyond reasonable doubt on each and every count of this indictment,” she said.

Taylor, the first African head of state to face an international tribunal, pleaded not guilty to 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity on claims that he armed Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in exchange for illegally mined so-called “blood diamonds”.

“He was at the very centre of the web of the crimes in Sierra Leone,” Hollis insisted. “He was the one who had control over the leaders of these groups perpetuating such horrific crimes.”

The Sierra Leone civil war claimed some 120 000 lives in the 10 years to 2001, with RUF rebels, described by the prosecution as Taylor’s “surrogate army”, mutilating thousands of civilians by hacking off their limbs.

“He controlled the RUF,” co-prosecutor Nicholas Koumjian told judges of Taylor, president of Liberia from 1997 to 2003.

“Charles Taylor, as all in the RUF knew, was the sponsor of that organisation. He was directing the RUF not only militarily but also politically.”

The prosecution claims Taylor was driven by greed and power lust, to “forcibly control the people and territory of Sierra Leone … and to pillage the resources, in particular the diamonds”.

The 62-year-old has dismissed the claims as “lies”, saying he was the victim of a political plot by “powerful countries”.

Judge Teresa Doherty declared the hearing closed on Friday, saying the judges will now deliberate in private. Judgment is expected during the European summer.

Taylor’s lead counsel, Courtenay Griffiths, told journalists at the court he was confident of an acquittal, citing “the inadequacy of the evidence put before the court by the prosecution and the strength of the defence evidence, which proves Taylor’s role in Sierra Leone was entirely peaceful”.

“Mr Taylor feels a great sense of relief,” at the closure of the case, he added.

Taylor was arrested and transferred to the court in 2006, and is held at the United Nations Detention Unit in The Hague. His trial was transferred to the Netherlands for fear that his presence in Freetown would destabilise the region.

Intelligent and charismatic
Judges have heard gruesome testimony from victims of the Sierra Leone conflict, including a witness who said he pleaded with RUF rebels to cut off his remaining hand so they would spare his toddler son.

Others said Taylor’s fighters strung human intestines across roads, removed foetuses from the wombs of women and practiced cannibalism.

In exchange for his support, prosecutors claim, Taylor received “mayonnaise jars” of illegally mined so-called blood diamonds from the RUF, a handful of which he presented to supermodel Naomi Campbell at a charity dinner hosted by South Africa’s then-president Nelson Mandela in 1997.

One witness said he was present when the Liberian leader ate human liver.

Koumjian described Taylor as “an intelligent man and [he] can be very charismatic”.

“He is counting on the fact that he can fool you, and I don’t think that he can,” he told the judges.

Taylor, who has boycotted sessions of the trial, was present in court on Friday, but did not address the judges.

Dressed in a dark grey suit, crisp white shirt and gold cufflinks, he listened attentively from the dock, making occasional notes. — AFP

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Mariette Le Roux
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