As Charles Taylor boycotts trial, Sierra Leone's war-battered residents hope for justice

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor faces indictments on 11 counts, including murder, rape, sexual slavery, and the use of child soldiers in a brutal civil war that ravaged Sierra Leone.

Jerry Lampen/AP
Former Liberian President Charles Taylor awaits the start of the prosecution's closing arguments during his trial at the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone in Leidschendam on Tuesday, Feb. 8.

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor boycotted his war crimes trial in The Hague for a second day on Wednesday, further delaying the court’s ruling on whether he bears responsibility for the civil war that ravaged the West African country of Sierra Leone for more than a decade.

It is the latest bizarre twist in the drawn-out trial at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, established in 2003 “to try those who bear the greatest responsibility” for the war that brutalized the country in the 1990s. Proceedings have included Shakespearean monologues from Mr. Taylor along with testimonies from British supermodel Naomi Campbell and American actor-activist Mia Farrow.

But here in Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, the public remains confident that the law will eventually catch up with Taylor, who faces indictments on 11 counts, including murder, rape, sexual slavery, and the use of child soldiers.

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Charles Taylor is pretending to the world that he’s innocent,” says Theresa Turay, a Sierra Leonean who lived through the country’s gruesome 11-year civil war. “But he has to face the trial. He has to face the penalty.”

“If you play evil," she adds, "it will come back for you."

The trial, which heard its first witness in January 2008, was set to come to an end Friday. Prosecutors presented their closing arguments Tuesday, and the defense was meant to do the same today. If closing arguments had wrapped up as planned this week, a ruling in the case could have been expected sometime later this year. Taylor’s boycott has thrown that schedule into disarray.

'This is about ego, not justice'

Taylor’s lawyers led the walkout Tuesday, claiming the court wrongly rejected their 547-page trial summary, which was filed three weeks late despite multiple warnings from the court.

Speaking outside the courtroom Wednesday morning, Taylor’s lead lawyer Courtenay Griffiths insisted that the court’s refusal to accept the trial summary was evidence of its bias against the defense team. The British lawyer said he plans to appeal, a process that could delay a ruling in the case indefinitely.

“It's about simply this: ‘You're not running this court, Mr. Taylor, and we're going to show you who's in charge by rejecting your final brief,’ ” Mr. Griffiths said today outside the court, reports the Associated Press. “So this is about ego, not justice, and I really don't see that this kind of personalized politics has any part to play in a court of law."

Chief prosecutor Brenda Hollis shot back, claiming that Taylor’s team was just trying to buy time. “The accused is not attending a social event. He may not R.S.V.P. at the last minute. He is the accused at a criminal proceeding,” Ms. Hollis said.

Prosecutors claim that while Liberia’s president from 1997 to 2003, Taylor effectively served as the commander of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) – the rebel group that instigated Sierra Leone’s civil war – from his base in Liberia, issuing orders and supplying the rebels with black market weapons. In exchange, the prosecution maintains, RUF fighters brought Taylor a steady supply of rough diamonds that had been picked out of alluvial deposits in mineral-rich eastern Sierra Leone, which was under rebel control.

Testimony from Naomi Campbell and Mia Farrow

Witnesses who have taken the stand over the past three years have put a human face to the reports of atrocities perpetrated by the RUF.

A young woman told the court that she was raped repeatedly by the rebels and impregnated at the age of 14. A local man described having his hands cut off by a boy soldier who was just 13 years old. A former radio controller told the court about the RUF’s “Operation Pay Yourself,” the 1998 campaign in which soldiers were instructed to pillage the countryside for food, women, and supplies.

Taylor, who likes to show up in court wearing bespoke suits and gold cuff links, denies all the charges, at one point claiming they were part of a US conspiracy against him. He has also taken the witness stand, testifying on his own behalf for a full seven months.

Ms. Campbell made a brief appearance last summer to testify about the pouch of “dirty looking stones” that were presented to her by unnamed men after she met Charles Taylor at a dinner hosted by former South African president Nelson Mandela in 1997. Soon afterward, Ms. Farrow took to the stand to dispute Campbell's testimony.

'Let law take its course'

Back in Sierra Leone, there’s not much sympathy for Taylor, the first African head of state to face an international criminal tribunal.

“[Taylor’s] strongmen started this whole thing back in 1991,” says Richard Koroma, a 31-year-old high school teacher in Makeni, the capital of Sierra Leone’s Bombali District, which saw heavy fighting during the war.

The first combatants crossed into Sierra Leone over the country’s southern border with Liberia, Mr. Koroma says. They then began terrorizing villagers and taking control of the local diamond mines.

“They were Charles Taylor’s former fighters,” he says of the men who came from Liberia. “He’s the one who sent them.”

RUF soldiers shot at Koroma as he fled the town of Kono with family members in 1997. A bullet punctured his left calf, but he had to walk 40 miles before he reached safety.

Today, Koroma is ready to leave those nightmares behind him. His first child, a girl, was born on Feb. 4, and he’s confident that Sierra Leone will have a peaceful future. As far as Charles Taylor is concerned, he just wants to move on.

“There’s nothing that we can do to Charles Taylor that will be equal to what he has done to the people of Sierra Leone,” Koroma says. “But let the law take its course.”

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