Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has welcomed today’s start of the war crimes trial of the notorious former Liberian president Charles Taylor, calling it “a significant move towards peace and reconciliation” in West Africa.
The trial adjourned this morning in The Hague after an initial hearing in which the Chief Prosecutor of the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) Stephen Rapp and trial attorney Mohamed Bangura presented the charges against Mr. Taylor and gave his opening statement.
“The witnesses that we will call and the documents that we will present will prove that the Accused is responsible for the development and execution of a plan that caused the death and destruction in Sierra Leone,” Mr. Rapp and Mr. Bangura said in their statement.
“The plan, formulated by the Accused and others, was to take over political and physical control of Sierra Leone in order to exploit its abundant natural resources and to establish a friendly or subordinate government there to facilitate this exploitation.”
The prosecutors noted in their statement that Sierra Leoneans have high expectations for the trial.
“They are the ones who still bear the scars of this brutal conflict and for whom this process of accountability, no matter what the eventual outcome, will have its greatest meaning.”
Mr. Taylor did not attend but sent a lengthy statement challenging the competence of the SCSL and the charges against him. He also dismissed his SCSL-appointed legal defence team, electing to represent himself when the trial resumes on 12 March.
Mr. Taylor is facing 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious violations of international humanitarian law, including mass murder, mutilations, rape, sexual slavery and the use of child soldiers, for his role in the decade-long civil war that engulfed Sierra Leone, which borders Liberia.
In a statement released by his spokesperson, Mr. Ban thanked all States for their contributions towards the work of the SCSL and urged they continue their support until the Special Court can complete its mandate.
“This is an important day for the international community, contributing to the fight against impunity and the strengthening of the rule of law, not only in West Africa, but in the world as a whole,” the statement said.
The trial is expected to last until December 2008, with a judgement likely by mid-2009. Prosecutors have indicated they plan to call up to 139 core witnesses.
A year ago the Security Council authorized the staging of Mr. Taylor’s trial at The Hague, citing reasons of security and expediency. Although the trial will be held at the premises of the International Criminal Court (ICC), it will remain under the exclusive jurisdiction of the SCSL.
The SCSL was established in January 2002 by an agreement between the Government of Sierra Leone and the UN and is mandated to try “those who bear greatest responsibility” for war crimes and crimes against community committed in the country after 30 November 1996. So far 11 people have been indicted.