Accessibility links

Independent Monitors Keep Eyes on Charles Taylor Trial

  • Nico Colombant

As the trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor resumes at the special tribunal in The Hague, monitors based in the United States are keeping close tabs on proceedings and making sure their information is available for the whole world on the Internet. They also say they are providing coverage traditional media have been unable to deliver.

"Mr. Taylor, it is true isn't it that in 1990, you moved your headquarters from Harbel to Gbanga?" asked the prosecutor.

"That is not true," responded Taylor.

Charles Taylor answered a prosecutor about his past as he was cross-examined on Monday in his trial, where he is accused of war crimes during Sierra Leone's recent civil war, allegedly backing brutal rebels to trade in lucrative diamonds.

Proceedings at the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague play out on live streaming video on the Charles Taylor trial Web site (, operated by the New York-based Open Society Justice Initiative. The site was set up with the cooperation of the tribunal, and gives people a chance to voice their opinions.

Text on the site explaining what is going at the trial is often followed by dozens of comments.

The group's legal officer for international justice, Tracey Gurd, says the site has taken on a life of its own.

"It has been one of the unanticipated outcomes of our Web site which was really set up for journalists but the outcome was that a lot of people from Liberia and Sierra Leone got on and started commenting on the site so we have had about 7,000 comments since Mr. Taylor took the stand," said Tracey Gurd.

She said the range of comments also surprised her.

"We have had the spectrum of opinion on there," she said. "Some people exhort Mr. Taylor's innocence and daily express their hope that he will come back, to be set free, and contest the next elections. Others are worried about whether he will get a fair trial and they are concerned that the court might be influenced by Western powers, like the United States or the United Kingdom. Others are hoping that he gets convicted and he never gets out of jail. And some say that he is on trial for the wrong war, that he should not be prosecuted for the Sierra Leonean war crimes but that he should be for those in his own home space, back in Liberia."

Gurd says the postings are also being picked up by African news agencies and reprinted in newspapers across West Africa.

"Information about the trial is getting back to the place where it really matters the most, which is West Africa, so that people can follow the trial even though it is being held half a world away over in The Hague," said Tracey Gurd.

The founding chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, David Crane, now a professor in the United States, started another Web site called Impunity Watch. The site( also has regular updates and commentary about the Charles Taylor trial, in addition to information about current tragedies.

"Most importantly is to make people aware of atrocity going on around the world, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year," said David Crane. "One of the challenges that I found when I was chief prosecutor over in the West African tribunal was that there is so little awareness of the tragedy that took place there in Sierra Leone and most of the time when I was talking to people or giving speeches around the world they would come up to me and say 'had I only known', and so the motto of 'Impunity Watch' is 'Had I only known.'"

As it resumes in the new year, the Special Court is again running against financial shortfalls. But Crane, who has seen this scenario before, says he is not overly concerned.

"It is amazing," he said. "I have always called the Special Court the little engine that could because again it was one of those same comparable tribunals like Rwanda and Yugoslavia, etc, but yet it was always challenged by money. I began work with no pay as did all my staff so again that has been lingering and has been a sort of Damocles over the head of that court ever since it was created. It will be done, it is a challenge. The world knows that this has to be done and they will give them the money but it just does not happen in the efficiency that it should, so it always comes to the brink and then money is paid."

Crane is expecting a guilty verdict this year. Charles Taylor has pleaded innocent, and his defense team has portrayed him as a peacemaker acting in the interests of Africans. The defense is planning to bring nearly 100 witnesses to the stand in the coming months. Trial watchers can now turn to U.S.-based Web sites on the Internet to get their fill of live coverage, analysis and commentary.