A verdict in the long war crimes trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor is not now expected until the end of this year, although the defense is cutting back on witnesses, a prosecutor said yesterday.
Taylor, 62, denies all 11 charges of instigating murder, rape, mutilation, sexual slavery and conscription of child soldiers during intertwined wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone in which more than 250 000 people were killed.
His trial by the UN-backed court for Sierra Leone in The Hague officially opened in June 2007, but was almost immediately adjourned after Taylor boycotted proceedings and fired his legal team. It began in earnest in January 2008.
Acting prosecutor Joseph Kamara of Sierra Leone told Reuters in an interview he was “optimistic that by the end of this year we should see a closure to this case.” Any appeal could take three to four more months, he added.
The original prosecutor, American Stephen Rapp, said a year ago he expected a verdict early this year, a target that was later put back until mid-2010.
But Taylor’s own evidence has dragged on. He took the witness stand in his own defense last July, and prosecutors only completed their cross-examination last Friday.
He is expected to face more questions from his own lawyers before other defense witnesses are called.
Prosecutors say Taylor armed and directed Revolutionary United Front rebels to win control of neighbouring Sierra Leone’s diamond mines and destabilize its government to boost his regional influence during the West African country’s 1991-2002 civil war.
Taylor was indicted by the Sierra Leone court in June 2003 and, under US pressure, resigned from power two months later. He accepted asylum in Nigeria, but was later arrested there and transferred to The Hague in 2006.
He has denied supplying arms to Sierra Leone rebels, saying the British and US governments were involved in supplying arms to the region as both countries wanted him ousted from power. The United States wanted to gain control of the region’s oil reserves, he has said.
Kamara said he heard last Sunday that the defense wanted to review its original list of 98 witnesses, “meaning that they want to reduce the number, which will help us to a large extent.” Prosecutors called 91 witnesses before wrapping up their case last February.
Kamara suggested defense lawyers were influenced by logistical difficulties in calling all their witnesses.
Some UN trials have been criticized for their excessive length, especially the trial by a separate court of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, which continued for four years before he died in 2006 with the case unfinished.
The United Nations is seeking to wind down its expensive special courts and have war crimes cases heard by national courts or the International Criminal Court.
But Kamara said he did not think the Taylor case had gone on too long. “I think we all seem to be on the same benchmark that we have to complete this trial and complete it efficiently,” he said.
He also said that although some witnesses had been concerned for their safety he did not think intimidation had affected the trial. “For the most part our witnesses were willing and able to testify, and they did,” he said.
Pic: Charles Taylor