The prosecution has presented its 91st and final witness in the United Nations-backed trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor on charges of war crimes committed in the civil war in Sierra Leone, completing a graphic litany of alleged atrocities ranging from thousands of murders to mutilation, rape and sexual slavery.
The Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), Stephen Rapp, who built his case with 31 insider witnesses testifying to Mr. Taylor’s links to the crimes, and more than 50 others, including amputees, rape victims and former child soldiers, cited the harrowing case of witness 91 – a father who had his hands chopped off to save his four-year-old son.
“I am in awe of their courage and grateful for their willingness to travel thousands of miles to bear witness,” he told a news conference in New York. “The contrast between these victims and the accused could not be more stark and this was brought home in particular by the last witness, a man whose left hand was amputated by the rebels who are alleged to have been controlled or aided by Taylor.
“When his four-year-old son protested the injury to his Pappa, and the rebels then threatened the boy with amputation, the witness then offered his own right hand to save his son, which the rebels then proceeded to chop off. Here we saw a man who sacrificed his own hands for the future of his son bearing witness against a man alleged to have sacrificed the lives, the hands and the futures of thousands of human beings in pursuit of his own wealth and power.”
Mr. Taylor has pleaded not guilty to the 11 counts of counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other violations of international humanitarian law, which also include pillage, slavery for forced marriage purposes, collective punishment and recruitment and use of children under the age of 15 in active hostilities. He is expected to testify in his own defence, according to his lawyers.
None of the charges relate to atrocities Mr. Taylor is alleged to have committed in Liberia, but to his aid to two Sierra Leonean rebel groups, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) during the civil war from 1996 to 2002.
Mr. Rapp said he expected the defence to start after Easter in April, after possible procedural defence motions to dismiss the case, and to last four to six months, with all evidence and arguments concluding this year. If Mr. Taylor is convicted, sentencing should follow three to four weeks after that. An appeal could then take up to six months and the whole process should be concluded by the end of 2010.
The SCSL, established in January 2002 by an agreement between Sierra Leone’s Government and the UN, cannot impose a life sentence, but it has already sentenced two defendants in another case to 50 years in jail. Britain has said it would be willing to imprison Mr. Taylor if he is found guilty. In 2006, the UN Security Council authorized Mr. Taylor’s trial to be held in The Hague, Netherlands, instead of its usual venue in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, citing security reasons.
Of the 91 prosecution witnesses, only four testified entirely in closed session, though some were protected by partial face or voice distortion.
“It’s been demonstrated that it’s possible to prosecute a former chief of State in a trial that is fair and efficient even when the indictment covers wide-ranging crimes,” Mr. Rapp said. “We’ve seen international justice operating in accordance with the highest standards.”