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UN Prosecutor Says Trial of Former Liberian President to Proceed


The chief prosecutor of the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone says he is confident the trial against Charles Taylor will proceed as scheduled, despite the former Liberian president's no show at the trial's opening last week. VOA's Stephanie Ho reports from Washington, where the prosecutor spoke with reporters.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone was set up by the Sierra Leonean government and the United Nations in 2002 to try those responsible for war crimes during that African nation's decade-long civil war.

Mr. Taylor is accused of terrorism, murder, rape, sexual slavery, mutilation and recruiting child soldiers during the time he was president. He has pleaded innocent to all counts.

At a news conference in Washington Monday, Special Court for Sierra Leone chief prosecutor Stephen Rapp said he believes Charles Taylor's decision to boycott the trial opening last Monday at the Hague will not be a dire setback.

"The trial can not be hijacked by an individual," said Rapp. "It needs to go forward and go forward in the best possible way, but not in a situation where the accused himself can essentially abort the process by the election not to turn up."

Mr. Taylor is in custody in the Hague, but did not show up in the court room. His lawyer read a letter saying the former Liberian leader was absent because he believes he will not get a fair trial.

Herman Von Hebel, the Special Court's acting registrar, dismissed Mr. Taylor's claims that he had insufficient resources to prepare a proper defense.

"Actually, we have been giving the defense counsel sufficient funds, more actually, than defense counsels get in other international tribunals," said Hebel.

At the same time, regional experts believe Mr. Taylor, who has said he wants to represent himself, has millions of dollars stashed away from his time in power.

Chief prosecutor Rapp says the next step of the court proceedings is the first session to present evidence and hear witnesses, which begins June 25 and runs for four weeks.

"We're anticipating going forward with that session," said Rapp. "I suppose there's some difficulty on the counsel question or something else that needs to be done, there could be some delay during that period, but we're not anticipating that."

Rapp says he expects the trial judges will want to keep the proceedings on schedule to wrap up within 18 months, or by the end of 2008.

Mr. Taylor does not face the death penalty and there is no prescribed maximum number of years in prison if he is sentenced. But the prosecutor added that he is pushing for a stiff jail term.

"Mr. Taylor is now 59 years old," said Rapp. "We would anticipate that he could receive a sentence that would effectively be a life sentence."

If Mr. Taylor is acquitted, he is free to return, as a private citizen, to Liberia. If he is convicted and sent to jail, he is set to serve out his prison term in Britain.

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