|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
PRESS CONFERENCE BY CHIEF PROSECUTOR OF SPECIAL COURT FOR SIERRA LEONE
The Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone announced today the conclusion of his case against Charles Taylor, former President of neighbouring Liberia, for his role in a campaign of terror waged against the civilian population during Sierra Leone’s brutal 11-year civil war that began in the mid-1990s.
“I believe we accomplished what we set out to do,” Chief Prosecutor Stephen Rapp said at a Headquarters press conference, adding that, after 41 weeks of court proceedings, the prosecution had wrapped up its case last Friday, having heard wrenching testimony from its ninety-first and final witness -- a man who’s hands had been chopped off with an axe by rebels allegedly under Taylor’s control.
“We’ve seen international justice operating at the very highest standards,” Mr. Rapp said of the proceedings in The Hague. The trial, taking place at the request of the Government of Sierra Leone in a courtroom provided by the International Criminal Court, would resume with a Status Conference on 9 February. “It has been demonstrated that it is possible to prosecute a former chief of State in a trial that is fair and efficient, even where the indictment covers wide-ranging crimes.”
He said Taylor was charged with 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Sierra Leone, including murdering and mutilating thousands of civilians, using women and girls as sex slaves or forcing them into marriage, and abducting children and forcing them into labour or to become fighters.
The prosecution had built its case on the testimony of 31 “insider” witnesses, who had testified about the links connecting Taylor to the crimes committed in Sierra Leone between 1996 and 2002, he said, noting that the Special Court’s mandate did not cover crimes allegedly committed by Taylor during Liberia’s subsequent civil conflict or during his presidency. “We also presented 52 crime-based witnesses who had seen or suffered these atrocities first-hand.”
Praising “these brave men and women” who had taken the stand to recount their suffering, he said the witnesses had included rape victims, former child soldiers and persons enslaved, robbed and terrorized. “I am in awe of their courage and grateful for their willingness to travel thousands of miles to bear witness. The contrast between these victims and the accused could not be more stark.”
That had been brought home particularly by the last witness, whose left hand had been chopped off by rebels allegedly controlled or aided by Taylor, the prosecutor said. When his four-year-old son had protested the injury to his “Papa”, prompting the rebels to threaten the boy with the same grisly fate, the witness had offered his own right hand to save his child. The rebels had then proceeded to chop it off.
He continued: “Here we saw a man who sacrificed his hands for the future of his son bearing witness against a man alleged to have sacrificed the lives, the hands, and the futures of thousands of human beings in pursuit of his own wealth and power.” Of the 91 witnesses, only 4 had testified entirely in closed session. All the rest had been heard in open court, with some protected by partial security measures, such as voice or facial distortion.
He said all open-session testimony had been streamed worldwide over the Internet, adding that there had been daily radio and newspaper coverage in both Sierra Leone and Liberia. Particularly laudable had been a programme under the auspices of the BBC World Service Trust, through which three Liberian and three Sierra Leonean journalists had been transported to The Hague to provide coverage in three-month shifts and prepare daily reports on the proceedings in local languages.
Noting that the prosecution case would not officially close until certain pending motions were decided, he said there was a possibility that the prosecution would present further evidence depending on those decisions. The 9 February hearing should clear up those matters and set the stage for the start of the defence case.
Stressing that he could only speculate about that case, he said it could possible get under way just after Easter. Under the Special Court’s rules, an accused person wishing to take the stand would testify first once the defence case began. Taylor’s defence team had said publicly that it expected him to testify. Other witnesses would then follow.
“What we’ve heard is four to six months for its presentation,” the Prosecutor continued, adding that he believed all the evidence and all arguments in the case would be heard in 2009 and be left in the hands of the judges by early 2010. If Mr. Taylor were found guilty, a sentencing hearing would follow within three or four weeks. That would almost certainly be followed by an appeal. The Special Court had traditionally handled such proceedings expeditiously, taking five or six months. “We would anticipate that by the end of 2010 we would be completed.”
He went on to say that proceedings were continuing apace in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where the last judgement in the final trial before the Special Court was expected to be handed down in the next two weeks. The prosecution expected everything in Freetown to be wrapped up by the end of 2009 and, as the Special Court neared the completion of its mandate, it was “very much in the going-out-of-business mode”. Most of its international investigation staff had already left and others were being steadily drawn down.
Asked whether the Security Council travel ban or assets freeze on Taylor’s close associates would have an effect on the defence case, Mr. Rapp said the relevant resolutions made it very clear that travel restrictions did not prevent witnesses from being called to testify either in Freetown or The Hague. Indeed, there had been potential prosecution witnesses on the restricted travel list, but the Council had made it clear that the measure would not apply to the Special Court’s work. In all other cases, the defence had been able to call cases and protection had been provided.
* *** *