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Defense Wraps Up First Week in Charles Taylor War Crimes Trial

By Kate Thomas
Dakar
17 July 2009

Lawyers for former Liberian President Charles Taylor have wrapped up the first week of the defense case at his war crimes trial in The Hague. The former Liberian president is being charged with crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone.

Charles Taylor's defense case began on Monday and is expected to last several months. It is the first time an African head of state has been prosecuted before an international criminal court.

This week Taylor talked judges through his childhood, political involvement in Liberia and an American jailbreak.

As part of yesterday's testimony the 61-year-old Mr. Taylor blamed Liberian senator Prince Johnson for the death of the country's former president, Samuel K. Doe. Taylor led a popular rebellion against the Doe regime.

Doe was killed in 1990 and the murder was captured on film, but Prince Johnson denies responsibility.

Taylor also said he had help in breaking out of a Massachusetts county jail in 1985.

Earlier in the week, the father of 14 portrayed himself as an anti-corruption fighter, a humanitarian and a peacemaker. He said it is incredible that he is being charged with crimes against humanity.

"It is quite incredible that such descriptions of me would come about … very, very unfortunate that the prosecution, because of disinformation, lies, rumors, would associate me with such titles," Taylor said.

All week, the visitors gallery that overlooks the courtroom has been packed. But most of those watching the trial are from Europe or North America.

Despite outreach efforts by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which was moved from Freetown to The Hague amid fears of provoking instability in West Africa, the human rights organization Amnesty International says most Sierra Leoneans are not following the trial.

Shelby Grossman, a U.S.-based researcher of Liberian politics, says most people in Liberia and Sierra Leone are apathetic about the trial and are paying more attention to the report that was recently released by Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or TRC.

"In Liberia, Liberians are overwhelmingly paying more attention to the TRC report. I think that Liberians and Sierra Leoneans pay attention to the trial on the big days, but aside from that they are not paying attention to it and it's having very little impact on their lives," Grossman said.

For the past three years the Truth and Reconcililation Commission has been assessing the causes of the long-running Liberian conflict. It listened to testimonies from victims and perpetrators in Liberia and the diaspora.

Prince Johnson, the warlord blamed for the murder of Samuel K. Doe, was one of those who testified in front of the commission.

Papie Stow is a Liberian who fled to Sierra Leone and then Senegal during the long-running Liberian war. He says Charles Taylor was not able to testify in front of the TLC for Liberian crimes because he was on trial for actions in Sierra Leone.

"With Prince Johnson going back to the TRC to confess and tell the Liberian people what he did and that he's sorry for that, we can forgive him because we need peace in our country. Well it can't be the same with Charles Taylor," Stow said.

Grossman says there are two reasons why Liberians and Sierra Leoneans are not paying close attention to the trial.

"It is in The Hague so the distance is having that effect to some extent, but I think even more that that, for many the big fish is not Taylor," she said. "Taylor did not rape their sister, Taylor did not loot their village. Maybe people under his command did but his responsibility for these local crimes isn't as clear."

Taylor's testimony will continue on Monday. In the meantime, it has emerged that the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone is in danger of running out of funds to complete the trial.



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