The Chief Prosecutor of the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) today stressed the “historic” importance of the war crimes trial of former Liberian leader Charles Taylor in signalling an end to impunity, even at the highest level.
Mr. Taylor is facing 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious violations of international humanitarian law – including mass murder, mutilations, rape, sexual slavery and the use of child soldiers – for his role in the decade-long civil war that engulfed Sierra Leone, which borders Liberia. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges against him.
Chief Prosecutor Stephen Rapp said the arrest and transfer of Mr. Taylor “after he had been permitted to go into what was anticipated to be a safe and comfortable exile was precedent shattering in several respects.
“I think it has awakened many in the world to the possibility that individuals who might commit or be alleged to have commit similar crimes will in the end face a day of justice,” he said at a press briefing in New York.
Indeed, “the case is one of historic importance in signalling an end to impunity of individuals, even at the highest level.”
He added that “the challenge that remains for those of us that are involved in this process is to make sure that when you do try an individual at that level, that you are able to do it expeditiously, that justice be done and be seen to be done.”
That is particularly important in the case of the Taylor trial, he noted, because of its transfer to The Hague in the Netherlands – some 5,000 kilometres from the seat of the Special Court in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown.
In 2006, the Security Council authorized the staging of Mr. Taylor’s trial at The Hague, citing reasons of security and expediency. Although the trial will be held at the premises of the International Criminal Court (ICC), it will remain under the exclusive jurisdiction of the SCSL.
Mr. Rapp said the Court is continuing its outreach programme so that people know what is going on with the case even though it is taking place far away from the “scene of the crime.”
Given the “excellent progress” being made in the trial, he said the case could be concluded within 12 to 18 months. The Court’s judges have indicated that they will have a judgment at first instance by January 2010, presuming that the evidence is concluded by the end of July 2009.
The Special Court, established in January 2002 by an agreement between the Sierra Leonean Government and the UN, is mandated to try “those who bear greatest responsibility” for war crimes and crimes against community committed in the country after 30 November 1996.
Last July, it reached an agreement with the British Government whereby Mr. Taylor will serve out his sentence in the United Kingdom if he is convicted.