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Court Delays Charles Taylor's War Crimes Trial Until 2008

Judges presiding over the war crimes trial of ex-Liberian leader Charles Taylor have postponed the trial until January 7 to give new defense lawyers time to prepare their case. Taylor dismissed his previous lawyer because he said he could not receive a fair hearing. Human rights lobbyists and victim associations are impatient for the trial to began, but agree more time is needed for a fair trial. Phuong Tran brings us this report from VOA's West African Bureau in Dakar.

Taylor's new defense lawyer, Courtney Griffiths, had urged the court to postpone the trial saying a focus on a speedy outcome could hurt Taylor's chances for a fair trial.

Geraldine Mattioli with the lobby group Human Rights Watch says it is fair to give the new defense team more time. She says the prosecution has had years to gather evidence and prepare its case.

The new defense team was installed on August 1. It has said it still needs to review tens of thousands of pages of evidence.

"We, in a way, expected they would request more time to prepare what will be a very complex case, the first to involve the president of an African state charged with 11 counts of very serious crimes," said Mattioli. "It is fair to grant them a delay so they can prepare their case properly."

Taylor is charged with arming and supporting rebels who murdered thousands of civilians and hacked off the limbs of thousands more during Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war, which ended in 2002. Prosecutors plan to call at least 10 such victims as witnesses.

The former leader refused to appear in court when the case opened on June 4, and initially said he wanted to defend himself, throwing the process into turmoil. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Mattioli urges the court to stay firm with Taylor to prevent any more delays.

"It is totally appropriate that he [Mr. Taylor] receives a fair trial, but that does not mean he can block the trial," she said. "We look to the trial chamber to continue being firm to balance the rights of Mr. Taylor with the interest of justice and efficiency in carrying out this trial."

Defense lawyers visited Sierra Leone and Liberia last week in search of witnesses to help their case. Mr. Taylor's defense team has said that U.N. travel bans against his family and close friends are preventing others from coming forward to support the former leader.