LEIDSCHENDAM, Netherlands – Charles Taylor’s war crimes trial is ending the way it began — with the former Liberian president boycotting proceedings and claiming they are politically motivated and unfair.
Taylor’s British attorney Courtenay Griffiths stormed out of the courtroom Tuesday after judges at the Special Tribunal for Sierra Leone refused to accept his 600-page summary of the case — a key document that distills three years of testimony from the defense’s perspective.
Taylor briefly stayed in his seat but later refused to return to the courtroom after a break. Griffiths said it would have been “unseemly” if Taylor had tried to walk out with his lawyer and had struggled with his U.N. guards.
The boycott was unlikely to have an impact on the outcome of the case. The three international judges ordered the proceedings to continue, and one judge appeared visibly angry at what he called Taylor’s attempt to dictate to the court.
“If Mr. Taylor thinks he can make orders or disobey orders of this court at will, simply because he thinks it is in his best interest to do so, then he is running this court, not us,” said Judge Richard Lussick, of Samoa.
Taylor is accused of arming and supporting murderous rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone in exchange for illegally mined diamonds. He has pleaded innocent to 11 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, torture and using child soldiers.
His trial marks the first time a former African head of state has appeared before an international war crimes tribunal.
“Look at it from the point of view of the legacy of the tribunal,” Griffith said after defying judges by walking out of the courtroom. “The most important defendant (could be) convicted without the judges hearing his lawyer’s closing arguments.”
The tribunal, in a majority decision, refused Monday to accept Griffiths’ final brief because it was filed after the Jan. 14 deadline.
Ugandan Judge Julia Sebutinde dissented, warning that refusing to accept Taylor’s summation “is to deny him his fundamental right to defend himself.”
Griffiths conceded the late filing, but said rejecting it for being 20 days late, “within the context of a trial lasting three years is, in my submission, totally unreasonable.”
He said he would appeal the decision.
Prosecutor Brenda Hollis accused Taylor of deliberately defying the court, just as he did when he boycotted its opening in June 2007, leading to a six-month delay.
“We have seen this attempt at manipulation of the proceedings at the beginning and now we are seeing it at the end,” Hollis said.
“The accused is not attending a social event. He may not R.S.V.P. at the last minute,” Hollis said. “He is the accused at a criminal proceeding.”
Prosecutors allege Taylor armed and supported rebels responsible for many of the worst atrocities of Sierra Leone’s civil war, which left tens of thousands of people dead and many more mutilated after enemy fighters hacked off their limbs, noses or lips.
In her summation, Hollis laid the blame for the atrocities firmly at Taylor’s feet, saying he used the rebels to pillage Sierra Leone’s mineral wealth and in particular its diamonds.
“Charles Taylor, this intelligent, charismatic manipulator, had his proxy forces … carry out these crimes against helpless victims in Sierra Leone,” she said. “All this suffering, all these atrocities, to feed the greed and lust for power of Charles Taylor.”
Griffiths has argued that the U.N.-backed tribunal is a tool of major world powers and particularly the United States to keep Taylor out of Liberia, the West African country he ruled as an elected president from 1997-2003 after seizing power in a bloody civil war.
Griffiths said leaks from the court to U.S. embassy officials in The Hague and a diplomatic cable from the American embassy in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, expose U.S. designs regarding Taylor.
“The best we can do for Liberia is to see to it that Taylor is put away for a long time” said the cable, dated March 10, 2009, and released by WikiLeaks website. Griffiths said the cable showed the tribunal is not independent “because the Americans are already putting in place contingency plans so if Mr. Taylor is acquitted they will put him on trial again in the United States.”