Former Liberian President Charles Taylor who is on trial before a special United Nations court for war crimes committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone is expected to know his fate early next year, his prosecutor says.
Reuters reports Taylor has pleaded not guilty to 11 counts including murder, rape, conscripting child soldiers and sexual slavery during the 1996-2002 civil war in the impoverished West African state.
Prosecutor Stephen Rapp told a UN news conference that the last of 91 prosecution witnesses gave testimony on Friday in the trial, which began in June 2007. “We believe that we have accomplished what we set out to do,” he said.
“It has been demonstrated that it is possible to prosecute a former chief of state in a manner that is fair and efficient. Our responsibility is to prove Charles Taylor guilty under the indictment.
Rapp said he expected the defence case to start just after Easter — mid-April this year. If Taylor, the first former African head of state to stand trial before any court, chooses to testify, as his defence team expects him to do, he will be the first defence witness heard.
Defence testimony was likely to take four to six months, Rapp said.
“We believe that all of the evidence and all of the argument will be concluded in this case this year, and it’ll be in the hands of the judges for a decision then on guilt or innocence in the early part of 2010,” he said.
More than 250 000 people died in intertwined wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia marked by brutal attacks on civilians, drug-crazed child soldiers and amputations of limbs.
The Sierra Leone court was set up to try those with the greatest responsibility for war crimes there. Unlike other defendants, Taylor, 61, is being tried in The Hague and not in the Sierra Leone capital Freetown to avoid local unrest.
The last prosecution witness was a man who had both his hands amputated by rebels allegedly controlled or aided by Taylor. When his 4-year-old son protested at the amputation of his father’s left hand, the rebels threatened the boy with the same fate and the witness then offered his right hand to save him, Rapp said.
Defence counsel Courtenay Griffiths says his client tried to bring peace to Sierra Leone, denying in an interview with Reuters last week that Taylor supplied weapons to the Revolutionary United Front rebels, as alleged.
Taylor’s trial got off to a shaky start when he failed to show up and demanded more money to fund his defence, prompting a six-month delay, but has since proceeded more smoothly.
The prosecutor said if Taylor was convicted and appealed, the appeal should be concluded by the end of next year. Britain has offered to imprison Taylor if he receives a jail term from the court, which is barred from passing a death sentence.
Last month, a Miami court sentenced Taylor’s son Charles “Chuckie” Taylor Jr., a 31-year-old US citizen, to 97 years in prison for mutilations and executions in Liberia. It was the first U.S. prosecution for torture committed abroad.
The South African Broadcasting Corporation add that Taylor`s defence team fears witnesses may be afraid to testify for the defence in case the UN sanctions them by freezing or attaching their assets for associating with Taylor.
But Rapp dismisses the concern. “We don`t think there is a real problem with defence witnesses fearing any consequences testifying in this case.”
The Special Court for Sierra Leone – not to be confused with the International Criminal Court (ICC) – is based on a similar tribunal created to try war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia during a series of conflicts there during the 1990s.
That court indicted Serb and Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević, but he died before the trial was completed. Milošević was a sitting head of state at the time he was charged. It was also about to indict Croatian president Franjo Tudjman at the time of his death.
The ICC, established in 2002, as a result of lessons learned from the Sierra Leone and Yugoslav experience is currently investigating atrocities committed in several African conflicts, which has prompted criticism.
African Union (AU) Chairman Jean Ping told the BBC it was unfair that all those indicted by the ICC so far were African. “We are not against international justice,” he said. “It seems that Africa has become a laboratory to test the new international law.”
But ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo says he cannot ignore the alleged crimes.
In a new development, his office this morning said it was conducting a “preliminary analysis” of alleged crimes committed by Israelis during their recent offensive in the Gaza Strip.
Moreno-Ocampo has received communications on this issue from Palestinian justice minister Ali Kashan, the Palestinian National Authority, and more than 200 other individuals and non-governmental bodies, his office said.
“The office of the prosecutor will carefully examine all relevant issues, including on jurisdiction. The preliminary analysis conducted by the office of the prosecutor is not indicative that an investigation will be opened.”