Charles Taylor’s lead counsel in his war crimes trial in The Hague has stormed out of court after angry exchanges with the judges, later accusing them of having made up their minds about his client’s guilt before the hearing began.
Courtenay Griffiths, a London barrister, walked out of proceedings after judges refused to accept a written summary of the former Liberian president’s defense at the end of his trial.
Griffiths defied judges’ orders to stay in court, saying his actions were a protest at the court’s conduct since the Guardian published a story based on WikiLeaks cables in December, which he believed revealed a witch-hunt against Taylor.
“I have been led to believe that some of the judges might have made their minds up a long time ago, even before proceedings begun,” Griffiths told the Guardian.
“I cannot allow myself to be used to give credibility for a totally unfair set of circumstances. This is not a question of personal anger, it is a point of principle. This is not how a criminal trial — particularly one of this gravity — should be run,” he said.
The row stems from a Guardian report in December that revealed the US government’s determination to see Taylor convicted.
Cables from the US embassy in The Hague stated that the US government wanted “to see Taylor is put away for a long time,” and would consider putting him on trial in the US if he were acquitted in the current proceedings.
Taylor’s defense team responded with a motion stating that the cables revealed political interference in the court.
“The cables clearly indicate the US government’s desire to ensure that Mr Taylor not return to Liberia and proof that there is and have been contacts between the [court] and the US government outside official lines of communication,” the motion said. “This ... raises serious doubts about the ... impartiality of the Special Court’s prosecution of Taylor.”
Griffiths says the court’s failure to deliver a ruling on the motion resulted in a delay to the defense filing its final brief, which was submitted 20 days late.
On Monday, the three-judge panel rejected the brief, with the only African judge dissenting.
Tuesday morning, Griffiths walked out, saying the court’s decision to reject his brief was unfair.
“Against the interests of justice, the court is not going to look at our closing brief, even though they have got it,” Griffiths said. “I’m not going to sit in court listening to arguments from the other side pretending that two of three judges are listening when they are not even going to look at submissions in front. What’s the point of me wasting my breath in court?”
Griffiths said he would appeal against the decision immediately, but would not be returning to court.
Taylor, who has pleaded not guilty to 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity including murder, torture and using child soldiers, has cast himself as a statesman who tried to pacify west Africa. He is understood to have agreed to Griffiths’s decision to walk out of the proceedings.