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Charles Taylor Trial Set to Begin Amid Complaints from Defense


Prosecutors at the Special Court for Sierra Leone say everything is set for the Charles Taylor case to begin June 4 in The Hague. But the former warlord's lawyers have complained that they need more help. Kari Barber reports from VOA's West Africa bureau in Dakar.

In pre-trial conferences this week, defense lawyers for former Liberian president Charles Taylor told the court they need more experienced counselors on their team to handle the complicated case. Taylor is to be represented by two lawyers who will face a 10-attorney prosecution team.

Taylor is charged with numerous counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other human rights violations, including mass murder, rape, physical mutilation and the use of child soldiers, based on his role in neighboring Sierra Leone's civil war in the 1990s.

The defense also argued that it is difficult to get witnesses to testify because U.N. restrictions still bar many close associates of Taylor from traveling.

Stephen Rapp, the head prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, is calling the approaching trial a victory over impunity. He says efforts should be made to ensure that Africans can monitor the proceedings closely, even though the trial is taking place in Europe.

"Our judges from here are going up there, but still supported from here by substantial resources and with us constantly working to make sure the information about that trial reaches the people of Sierra Leone and the region so that they have got as close as possible the same access to those proceedings that they would have had if the proceedings would have remained in Freetown," he said.

Carolyn Norris with the International Crisis Group says that because the trial is to take place in The Hague, there are some in Sierra Leone who would like to go, but will not be able to.

"I think certainly in Sierra Leone there is a feeling of disappointment in a way that he [Charles Taylor] is not going to be tried in the country where those alleged crimes were committed," she said. "But also I think there is also a general feeling of relief among Liberians and Sierra Leoneans that this man is further away from where he caused them problems."

Norris says the Taylor trial will likely have a regional impact, influencing how Liberia handles those accused of war crimes in the country.

"I think once this case, the Charles Taylor case, is under way and it reaches a verdict, I think that will re-open the debate within Liberia as to who should be brought to trial there," she said.

London-based human rights activist Ibrahim Kane says he hopes the trial will lead to more convictions of those responsible for escalating Sierra Leone's brutal civil war.

"They have committed the same atrocities; it was done in the same country, which is Sierra Leone," he said. "It was done by people who had different positions in militia groups. I think if they have been arrested for those atrocities they have to face the same situation, the same rules."

Taylor's trial is being held at the International Criminal Court in The Hague for security reasons. The trial was supposed to begin in April, but was postponed until June to allow the defense more time to prepare.

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