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Charles Taylor war crimes trial gets mixed reviews in Liberia

During four months of testimony, Charles Taylor, the former leader of Liberia, denied committing war crimes. He said he was the victim of a US and British conspiracy. The prosecution now begins its cross-examination in The Hague.

By Jina MooreCorrespondent / November 11, 2009

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor is seen at the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague, Netherlands.

Robin van Lonkhuijsen/Reuters/File

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Monrovia, Liberia

The local ataye center is a small, leisurely oasis on an otherwise bustling commercial street in Liberia's capital of Monrovia. Here, men sip bitter green tea, play checkers and Scrabble, and debate the day's politics.

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At first, the name of Charles Taylor, an ex-president and notorious warlord, hushes the crowd. But by the time the afternoon's heat peaks, blustery opinions drown out the latest Akon music video as some 70 men gathered here on a lunch break argue over Mr. Taylor's ongoing war crimes trial.

The trial resumed this week in The Hague, where Taylor has been held since his arrest in 2006. He faces 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Taylor is the first African head of state to face an international criminal tribunal. But the indictment – and the court's jurisdiction focus only on crimes allegedly committed in neighboring Sierra Leone. Prosecutors have argued that Taylor backed rebel groups during the same civil war portrayed in the film "Blood Diamond."

Many Liberians want Taylor to face trial in Liberia for the suffering he caused in their own country during 10 years of brutal warfare that killed some 250,000 people and crippled the nation's economy. Others actually miss the charismatic leader who showered loyalists and foot soldiers with money and benefits. Still, most Liberians eking out a living on less than a dollar a day, and far from the courtrooms of The Hague, are more concerned with other aspects of life, analysts say.

"I definitely think Liberians are not well informed" about the trial, says Paul James Allen, a program associate in the Monrovia office of the International Center for Transitional Justice. "Only a very small group of elites within civil society and even among journalists are 'informed.' Liberians in general do not care about this kind of thing. Generally they are more concerned with daily life."

LACK OF INFORMATION ABOUT THE TRIAL

There is a plethora of opinions on Taylor's guilt or innocence in Monrovia, but it's not clear how much factual information about the trial is getting through the din. Over the summer, when Taylor testified in his defense, locals say the trial was front-page news; now, it gets only a small mention on the inside of the paper.

Officials from the Special Court's headquarters in Freetown, Sierra Leone, occasionally hold outreach activities in Liberia, including video screenings of trial excerpts and town hall-style conversations. But the urgency of the issue seems to have faded. Last summer, when Taylor first took the stand in The Hague, video clubs across Monrovia broadcast videotapes of his testimony. Today, soccer lineups and music videos crowd out the warlord.

Robert Weah, who lives in Monrovia, thinks the Liberian government should be doing more to make the trial accessible to Liberians.

"The government should pay for air time on TV and radio stations," he says. "Liberians need to follow the former president's trial so that they'll be able to get actual facts."

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