Tue, Aug 28, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Trial of Charles Taylor losing momentum

WAR CRIMES With the former Liberian president's hearings postponed for the fourth time this year, there has been a lot of finger pointing about who is to blame


When Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, was arrested 17 months ago on war crimes charges and ordered to face international judges, it was heralded as a milestone for justice in Africa.

His trial, the first war crimes trial for an African president, was scheduled to start in April.

But having barely begun, the case has already lost its momentum. Last Monday, hearings were postponed for the fourth time this year, and the court is now set to reconvene in January.

The latest disruption was the result of Taylor's dismissal of his court-appointed lawyer, Karim Khan. His new lawyer, Courtenay Griffiths, told the court that his team needed at least four months to study the 40,000 pages of evidence already before the court. And he said that Taylor's personal archives, about 50,000 pages, had only just surfaced and needed to be examined.

The delays have caused much finger pointing about who at the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone is most to blame.

The responsibility is variously pinned on the judges for trying to schedule the complex case with undue haste, on the court administration for being inept and short of funds, or on Taylor -- who has denied all criminal charges -- for stalling.

One problem that has dogged the trial is that it was moved from the relatively inexpensive Sierra Leone to the much costlier city of The Hague, in the Netherlands.

Several countries, including the US, which was deeply involved in creating the tribunal, feared that a trial in Freetown for such an influential politician could cause unrest in west Africa.

Court officials say that the move has created more bureaucracy while driving up salaries and travel bills for staff and witnesses.

Stephen Rapp, the tribunal's chief prosecutor, said: "The court had to find new offices, move people, hire more staff, find safe quarters for witnesses, all on a very tight budget."

Turf wars arose with the host, the new International Criminal Court. An official with the Sierra Leone tribunal, who did not want to be named because he needs to work with both courts, said the international court initially tried to charge "an enormous sum" for the use of one of its rarely occupied courtrooms and insisted on renting out a whole floor of its cellblock instead of just Taylor's two cells. In the end, prices came down.

But the new location has also put the Sierra Leone court under a stronger spotlight in a town with three other international courts, packed with lawyers, students and observers from the fast-growing field of international law, some of whom have been critical.

As it happens, the Sierra Leone court was planned to benefit from lessons learned from the war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and for the former Yugoslavia, which were seen as slow, expensive and far from the wars' victims.

When it opened in 2002, US officials involved in its creation presented the new institution as a better model, one that would be cheaper, faster and leaner and would try only a few top leaders. One innovation was using both national and international judges.

But in practice, the court, now dealing with just 10 defendants, has had difficulty in carrying out its mandate. Operating in two cities -- in Europe for Taylor and Africa for the other cases -- has clearly complicated its mission, but critics say that from the start the court has been slow and inept.

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