Charles Taylor stays away from war crimes trial

8th February 2011, Comments 0 comments

Liberian ex-president Charles Taylor shunned his war crimes trial Tuesday, refusing to return from a coffee break after his lawyer stormed out of court in a showdown with judges.

"He said he was very upset and needed some rest," Special Court for Sierra Leone official Claire Carlton-Hanciles informed judges when a hearing resumed with empty defence benches after a 30-minute break.

"He has dispensed with appearance for today."

Presiding judge Teresa Doherty pointed out that an order had been made for Taylor to remain in court after his lawyer said in the morning that they both intended to leave in protest against a judges' decision.

"He (Taylor) has ... absented himself voluntarily," the judge said at the resumption of the hearing in Leidschendam, near The Hague. "This court case will proceed to its close as scheduled."

Taylor was present earlier when prosecutor Brenda Hollis told the court he bore "the greatest responsibility for the horrific crimes committed against the people of Sierra Leone through the campaign of terror inflicted on them."

He "was in charge of, put in place, directed, nurtured and supported the campaign of terror," said Hollis, all "to forcibly control the people and territory of Sierra Leone... and to pillage the resources, in particular the diamonds."

The prosecution claims the 62-year-old, described by Hollis as an "intelligent, charismatic manipulator," armed Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels who staged one of the most brutal conflicts in modern times, in exchange for illegally mined diamonds.

The Sierra Leone civil war claimed some 120,000 lives in the 10 years to 2001, with RUF rebels mutilating thousands of civilians who had limbs severed.

"All these atrocities to feed the greed and lust for power of Charles Taylor," said Hollis, as Taylor looked on dispassionately from behind darkened glasses, dressed in a dark suit and tie with gold cuff-links.

Taylor's lawyer, Courtenay Griffiths, stormed out of the courtroom in the morning in protest at the judges' refusal to accept the late filing of his final, written brief.

"We do not feel that it would be appropriate for us to take part," Griffiths said before rushing out, ignoring an order to sit down and a warning that he risked a contempt ruling.

Taylor's trial on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone in the 10 years to 2001, entered its final phase Tuesday with the prosecution's oral closing arguments.

But Griffiths said the judges' refusal to accept the brief 20 days beyond the deadline, rendered the proceedings unfair.

"It is our duty to withdraw" pending an appeal ruling against that decision, said Griffiths, accused by Hollis of seeking to "manipulate" the proceedings.

With his client compelled by two guards to stay seated, the lawyer stormed out, later telling journalists his presence would lend legitimacy to "a complete farce".

Court spokesman Solomon Moriba said Taylor had spent the subsequent coffee break in the court's holding area for suspects, from where he refused to return, and would be transported back to the UN detention unit in Scheveningen, The Hague.

Griffiths was to have presented the defence's closing arguments on Wednesday, but said he would not do so "pending the decision of the appeals chamber" on the judges' refusal of his brief.

Two hours have been set aside for rebuttal arguments for each party on Friday, after which the judges will retire to consider their judgment, expected by the middle of this year.

Taylor, the first African head of state to be brought before an international tribunal, has pleaded not guilty in a trial that started in earnest in January 2008.

© 2011 AFP

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