The trial of Charles Taylor opened without the accused in the dock Monday in The Hague, as the former Liberian President boycotted the proceeding he called a "charade." The first African head of state to face international war crimes charges, Mr. Taylor is charged with 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in orchestrating the brutal 11-year civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone. VOA's Lauren Comiteau is following the trial from Amsterdam and files this report.
It was supposed to be a historic opening to the trial of the former Liberian leader who prosecutors paint as a ruthless autocrat who caused death and destruction in Sierra Leone for his own benefit. But things turned dramatic as Mr. Taylor's lawyer, Karim Khan, tried to read out a letter from his client explaining why he thinks he won't get a fair trial and would therefore not attend.
"I cannot participate in a charade that does injustice to the people of Sierra Leone and Liberia and the people of Africa, and to the international community, in whose name this court claims to speak," he read. "I cannot, I choose not to be a figleaf of legitimacy for this process."
Mr. Taylor claims he has nowhere near the resources that prosecutors have. He has decided to defend himself, and he fired his lawyer. Mr. Khan then walked out of court, despite being ordered by the presiding judge to continue representing Mr. Taylor for the day. The judge then ruled the trial would go on with Mr. Khan's assistant representing Mr. Taylor, and she gave the floor to prosecutor Stephen Rapp.
He said Mr. Taylor was thumbing his nose at the court (was being disrespectful to the court), that just as he ignored the suffering of the people of Sierra Leone, he is now trying to ignore hearing the evidence of the crimes he committed. Prosecutor Rapp called the alleged crimes some of the "ugliest scenes of viciousness in recent memory" - crimes he said that were incomprehensible to the rest of the world.
"Human beings, young and old, mutilated. Rebels chopping off arms and legs, gouging out eyes, chopping at ears. Girls and women enslaved and sexually violated. Children committing some of the most awful crimes. The exploitation of the resources of Sierra Leone used, not for the benefit of its citizens, but to maim and kill its citizens. The very worst that human beings are capable of doing to one another," said Rapp.
Mr. Rapp says the evidence will show that Charles Taylor devised and executed the plan to take control of neighboring Sierra Leone in order to exploit its diamond wealth and install a friendlier, subordinate government to help him do it. He listed the names of those who helped Mr. Taylor achieve his goal, men the prosecution alleges were later ordered killed by Charles Taylor so they could not turn against him. Prosecutors expect to call some 140 witnesses and hope for an 18-month long trial. Things are already complicated by the fact that the trial is taking place in The Hague instead of in Freetown because of security concerns.
The trial will adjourn Monday until the end of the month to give Mr. Taylor more time to prepare his defense - a defense whose shape remains to be seen.