Charles Taylor trial ends, verdict to take months

AP News
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Posted: Mar 11, 2011 11:52 AM
Charles Taylor trial ends, verdict to take months

The war crimes trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, once among West Africa's most powerful figures, ended Friday with judges expected to take months to reach a verdict on whether he can be linked to murders and amputations during Sierra Leone's civil war.

In their final remarks, prosecutors cautioned the judges against being taken in by Taylor, "an intelligent and charismatic man" who portrayed himself during the three-year trial as a statesman and peacemaker rather than a warlord who used a surrogate army to pillage a nation.

The defense concluded by denying prosecution claims that Taylor was part of a criminal conspiracy with rebel leaders seizing power in neighboring Sierra Leone, providing them with weapons and support in exchange for diamonds illegally mined by slave labor.

A verdict was expected in five or six months, Taylor's attorney said. Taylor, the first African head of state to be tried by an international court, faces a maximum life sentence if convicted.

As on every day of the hearings, the smartly dressed Taylor sat Friday with a notebook open on his desk, with Post-its bearing scribbles and marking some of the pages.

"Like us, Taylor feels a great sense of relief" that the trial is over, defense lawyer Courtenay Griffiths said. Taylor "has been more tetchy than usual" in the last few days, Griffiths said.

Human rights groups say the Taylor case is a high-profile signal to authoritarian leaders that there is no impunity for people in high positions. Its conclusion is especially timely as another tribunal based in The Hague, the International Criminal Court, begins an investigation of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi for actions to quell a rebellion in his country.

But Griffiths, speaking to reporters after the trial adjourned, said the case instead showed that international justice can be imbalanced.

It "tends to target certain countries and appears to be used in the interests of more powerful countries," he said. Griffiths said it was critical to ensure that defendants have equal resources as the often well-finance prosecutors.

The three judges of the Special Court for Sierra Leone must weigh tens of thousands of pages of evidence, more than 1,000 documents and exhibits, and the testimony from more than 120 victims, former rebels _ and from Taylor himself, who was on the stand for seven months.

Taylor has pleaded innocent to 11 counts of murder, rape, pillaging and deploying child soldiers in Sierra Leone.

His defense team has argued that the prosecution provided only unconvincing circumstantial evidence connecting Taylor directly with the rebels, who were notorious for slicing off limbs, ears and lips of civilians to impose a reign of fear during the 1991-2002 war. It portrayed him as a man of peace who tried to mediate an end to the conflict in the neighboring country, and said the testimony for the prosecution by former rebels was often tainted by payments from the prosecutors.

Chief prosecutor Brenda Hollis said the defense had "misstated the evidence to fit their argument. The evidence proves _ incredible evidence in this case _ proves the accused is guilty beyond reasonable doubt on all counts of the indictment."

After 44 months of often tense courtroom action, the trial's finale came with an apology by Griffiths to the judges for walking out of the court last month when they refused to accept his written summation because it was submitted after the deadline. An appeals court overturned that ruling.

"I did not leave out of anger but principle," Griffiths told the judges. Nonetheless, he said he "wanted to draw a line under these proceedings." If they had thought him disrespectful, "I do apologize to the court."

Michael Scharf, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, who has closely followed the case, said he would not be surprised if Taylor was convicted in a split decision.

The essence of the case was to prove that Taylor conspired with others to provide weapons to rebels knowing they would be used to commit war crimes, and that he continued shipping arms even after reports of brutality, Scharf told The Associated Press.

"The prosecution's done what it has to do," he said. "There were enough compelling witnesses."

Prosecutor Nicholas Koumjian, given two hours for a final argument, told the court, "Charles Taylor always tried to portray himself as something he wasn't. ... He's an intelligent and charismatic man." But the prosecutor warned the judges, "He is counting on the fact that he can fool you. I don't believe he can."

Koumjian charged that Taylor eliminated former allies who threatened to expose his links with the rebels, including former rebel commander Sam Bockarie and his family. Bockarie died in a shootout with Liberian troops in 2003.

Koumjian said Taylor's influence over the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front, or RUF, was known at the time, and cited the capture of around 500 U.N. peacekeepers in 2000 as an example.

"When the peacekeepers were held hostage, the U.N. went to Charles Taylor to get them released. They knew he was the one" who could obtain their freedom, Koumjian said.

Taylor was indicted in March 2003 while he was still president of Liberia, a position he won in an election in 1997 after that country's own civil war ended. His trial began in June 2007, but Taylor initially boycotted the proceedings and fired his first lawyer, claiming he did not have enough time or money to prepare his defense. The trial only heard its first witness six months later after he hired Griffiths, a Jamaican-born British lawyer.

Griffiths said Taylor has been actively involved in his defense.

"Since he's been incarcerated, he's turned himself into a pretty good lawyer," Griffiths said. "Oftentimes, he has come out with suggestions for legal motions or objections which we hadn't thought of. He's not a fool."