|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
press conference by prosecutor of special court for Sierra Leone
Excellent progress had been made in the trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor, and the Special Court for Sierra Leone was “well on track” to concluding the presentation of prosecution and defence evidence within a 12-to-18-month time frame, Prosecutor Steven Rapp said at a Headquarters press conference today.
Briefing on the Special Court’s proceedings, Mr. Rapp said prosecutorial evidence had been brought on 7 January and seven witnesses had appeared in the trial thus far, including a key “insider” who had testified to the former Liberian leader’s links to crimes committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone. Mr. Taylor is charged with 11 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes, notably, organizing militias known for slicing off people’s limbs during Sierra Leone’s civil war, which ended in 2003.
Citing an article in the online e-journal International Justice Tribune, he said Mr. Taylor’s trial “provides a model at The Hague”. The case was of historic importance in signalling an end to impunity of individuals at the highest level. The challenges included ensuring that the trail was conducted expeditiously, that justice was done and that it was seen to be done, a critically important matter, given Mr. Taylor’s transfer to The Hague from West Africa.
Efforts by the Office of the Prosecutor to expand outreach on the trial’s progress throughout the subregion included more than 2,000 meetings held in Sierra Leone last year. Moreover, the case was being streamed live on the Special Court’s website (www.sc-sl.org), and summary reports could be found at www.charlestaylortrial.org, a project sponsored by the Open Society Justice Initiative, which employed volunteer lawyers from the global law firm Clifford Chance. Several Liberian newspapers, including the 11 January issue of the New Democrat, had printed those accounts verbatim. Journalists from Liberia and Sierra Leone had been sent to The Hague under the auspices of both the BBC World Service Trust and the Search for Common Ground.
“Everything will be done to make sure people know what’s happening in this case,” the Prosecutor said, detailing several historic trials stemming from Sierra Leone’s war, including the trial of the three surviving leaders of the rebel Revolutionary United Front, the group found by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to have committed the most extensive atrocities. The trial of the three accused is expected to conclude in the coming months.
Mr. Rapp said he was in the United States this week to meet with the Special Court’s Management Committee and get involved in its fundraising efforts. The Canadian Government had announced today a $5 million contribution, more than three times any previous annual contribution from that country. In addition, the United States Congress had passed an omnibus budget bill signed by the President on 26 December, which included a $12.5 million contribution. Hopefully it would be possible to conclude the Court’s work by 2009.
Asked about the effect of the trial’s length on Sierra Leoneans and the media, he said attention to date was greater in Liberia, judging from press accounts in both countries. Both the prosecution and defence recognized that the outreach programme was very important for the Court’s success, and the public viewed it as a success, though prosecutions had been limited to those charged with the greatest responsibility. An independent poll of 10,000 Sierra Leone residents last year showed that 90 per cent of them had heard about the Court’s work and 80 per cent believed it was a force for stability and peace. Furthermore, newly elected President Ernest Bali Koroma and Justice Minister Abdul Serry Kamal understood the role that the Court had played in the peaceful transition of power in Sierra Leone.
Regarding the concerns of witnesses and victims, he said the usual protective measures permitted a witness to testify under a pseudonym, but the accused and his defence team knew the name of the witness and needed that information at least 42 days before the testimony in order to do an effective job in challenging evidence. That raised concerns that individuals associated with the accused could commit aggressions against the witness. Such circumstances had required in-country relocation and about 15 relocations outside Sierra Leone.
The problem was most intense with insider witnesses, who could be subjected to a vendetta extending far beyond their testimony, the Prosecutor said. There were several such situations in the Taylor case, which required more intense efforts for safe relocation, including some outside the region, in order to ensure witness safety. While relocations must be disclosed to the other side in the litigation, “we watch these things very, very carefully”, he stressed.
On whether Mr. Taylor’s trial should receive more attention in the United States, given the country’s position on the International Criminal Court, he said it was important that the trial receive a lot of attention, as it showed that international institutions could responsibly conduct their work, and that the accused were entitled to effective representation. “This is the kind of process that no country that upholds the rule of law can really fear.” The willingness of the United States to have the case tried at the venue of the International Criminal Court, and its decision not to veto the referral of the Darfur situation to The Hague, indicated a rapprochement between the United States and the International Criminal Court that was expected to continue in the future.
Asked what he hoped would result from the trial, he said: “Justice.” The Office of the Prosecutor hoped to show -- through the presentation of evidence supporting the 11 counts of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the overarching crime of terrorism -- that Mr. Taylor had been engaged in a campaign of terror against civilians. Specific crimes included murder, extermination, collective punishment, rape, sexual slavery, mutilation, amputation, pillage, the recruitment of children under the age of 15 and their use in active hostilities. The case was an historic one and to tie Mr. Taylor to such crimes was a great challenge to surmount, but the Prosecutor’s Office sought to do that nonetheless.
As for when a decision might be rendered, Mr. Rapp said the judges had indicated they would have a judgement at first instance by January 2010, presuming that evidence was concluded by July 2009. Both sides had the right of appeal and the appellate court would need six months after final judgement to render a decision on any appeal.
Regarding the significance of testimony by an expert on blood diamonds, and the possibility of corporate interests being prosecuted for complicity, he said his Office viewed diamonds as an important motivation for the continuation of the war and atrocities in Sierra Leone. Witnesses would testify that Mr. Taylor had given orders in 1998 to seize and hold the Kono diamond fields, and documents described the delivery of 1,800 diamonds to him on one occasion, 200-300 of which had then been used to purchase materiel. Whether diamonds were the primary motivation for the start of the war in 1991 was subject to debate, but they had become a major motivation for its continuation, as well as a means to prolong it. Taking the diamonds from Sierra Leone was pillage of civilian property, he added.
Asked whether people in Antwerp, for example, could be held accountable for purchasing such diamonds, he said it was very challenging to prove that someone not directly involved on the ground was responsible. It required proving that actual knowledge had been obtained, and that with it, action had been taken to increase the flow of diamonds mined through slave labour, for example.
There were prospects at the national level for prosecuting those involved in the economics of Liberia and the conflict, he said. A Dutchman had famously been prosecuted for allegedly receiving concessionary rights to half the timber and hardwoods in Liberia from Mr. Taylor, with money paid to the Government going straight to Mr. Taylor or being used in the purchase of arms. The Prosecutor’s Office was willing to share evidence with any national prosecution.
Asked about the prosecution of those responsible for mass amputations, he said the Special Court had a limited mandate, crafted after the experience of the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The Special Court’s mandate was to go after those with the greatest responsibility, and thus, it had not prosecuted mid-level commanders responsible for hundreds of deaths. The Prosecutor’s Office was prepared to assist Sierra Leone in national prosecutions, but none had taken place, due in part to an amnesty given in 1999. Given that Sierra Leone was the first country to have an internationalized court, as well as a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, there was a perception that lower-level people would be dealt with in the Commission process.
On whether diamonds had triggered the war or were a means to perpetuate it, the Prosecutor said there was evidence that Mr. Taylor had intended to invade Sierra Leone out of a desire to control its diamond resources. That evidence was strengthened by the fact that diamonds had been instrumental in the war, and that keeping the diamond fields had become a key factor in continuing the conflict.
Asked if precedents involving child soldiers and the enslavement of girls had become part of national or international law, he said they had become part of both national and international law. The Yugoslavia and Rwanda tribunals had constantly cited each other’s decisions, which had a highly persuasive effect. One of the greatest legacies of such institutions was in building a body of jurisprudence, defining terms for instruments that had not been given enforcement effect.
With respect to a change in how people perceived such levels of criminality, and if Mr. Taylor’s prosecution would deter leaders of countries with similar problems, he said President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal had asked at the June 2006 African Union Summit where a trial of former Chadian ruler Hissène Habre could be held. That a trial should take place had never been an issue. The debate had occurred three months after Mr. Taylor’s transfer from Nigeria to Liberia and on to Sierra Leone, which indicated the impact of his case on the establishment of a legal framework for prosecutions.
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