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West Africa Experts Praise War Crimes Trial Despite Taylor's Failure to Show


The former president of Liberia, Charles Taylor, has boycotted the first day of his war crimes trial in The Hague, saying he does not believe the proceedings will be fair. Mr. Taylor still has supporters in Liberia who are opposed to the trial, but analysts say they believe the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, which will conduct the trial, is a fair and efficient tribunal. Selah Hennessy has more from the VOA West Africa bureau in Dakar.

In Liberia, Mr. Taylor's supporters are outraged by the trial, and support the former president's decision to boycott. This sentiment is shared by some African media commentators who portray Mr. Taylor as a victim of a western plot to cause chaos and pilfer resources in West Africa.

Samuel Johnson, speaking from Monrovia, says Mr. Taylor was being treated by the Special Court as a guilty man even before his trial began.

"As we speak now, Mr. Taylor's calls have been restricted; they restricted his calls two days prior to the trial," he said. "Mr. Taylor has been denied the right to speak in court. So we think Mr. Taylor has not been given fair treatment and fair justice."

He says that Mr. Taylor, who was moved to The Hague in 2006 following reports that a trial in Sierra Leone might re-ignite unrest in the country, should be tried in Africa where he can have a fair trial.

"If the man is accused of committing a crime in a particular country he must be tried there, for the benefit of the doubt. But you have taken Mr. Taylor from Africa to Europe," he said.

Mr. Taylor's attorneys have said that they have insufficient access to resources and facilities in The Hague.

They also say that the two-man defense team allocated to Mr. Taylor is insufficient, and that they need more time and funding to compete with the nine-strong prosecution team. Mr. Taylor's main lawyer walked out of the courtroom Monday, and said Mr. Taylor wanted to defend himself.

But analysts say that the trial of Mr. Taylor, who is the first African head of state to be prosecuted by an international criminal court, is progressing freely and fairly.

Peter Pham, director of the U.S.-based Nelson Institute for International and Public affairs, says Mr. Taylor is trying to discredit the court as a delaying tactic, because he does not have a strong defense.

"I think what Charles Taylor is facing is that he does not have much of a defense, and so as any lawyer knows, when you cannot argue the law you argue technicalities," he said.

Elise Keppler works at the Geneva offices of the group Human Rights Watch.

She says it is important that this trial is free from the problems that have marred the trials of heads of state in the past. Slobodan Milosevic died in The Hague in 2006 before his four-year trial ended, while the trial of Saddam Hussein was heavily criticized by Human Rights Watch for having serious legal defects.

She says a main problem with the trial of Hussein was that he was not tried in an international court.

"One of the most important features of the Special Court for Sierra Leone is that it has a mixed composition of Sierra Leonean and international judges and staff and that provides crucial opportunities to bring international expertise into the process," she said.

Alex Yearsley, from the London based non-governmental organization Global Witness, says that the charges made against Mr. Taylor have been limited to 11 to avoid an excessively lengthy trial, like that of Milosevic.

"They want this trial to last no more than 18 months, and I think it's important that there is a relatively swift conclusion, but obviously that there is a full and free, fair trial," Yearsley said.

Yearsley say the trial of Mr. Taylor is a hugely important step, and will force African leaders to recognize that they are not above the law.

"It is really does throw down a marker for the very important issue in relation to the ending of impunity," he said. "You cannot let the grossest human rights violations that occurred go unpunished, and the international community is absolutely doing the right thing."

One problem analysts say is apparent is the thin defense team Mr. Taylor has around him. The former president says he has no money for his defense, but regional experts believe he has millions of dollars stashed away from his time in power.

Mr. Taylor is accused of arming and supporting rebel groups who murdered, mutilated, and terrorized thousands of citizens in Sierra Leone during a decade-long civil war in exchange for diamonds.

He has been charged on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including mass murder, rape, and the use of child soldiers.

He has pleaded not guilty on all counts.

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