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Liberian Ex-Leader Boycotts War Crimes Trial as It Opens

June 5, 2007

THE HAGUE, June 4 — On the first day of his trial, former President Charles G. Taylor of Liberia, one of Africa’s most tyrannical warlords, refused to appear in court on Monday and sent word that he was firing his lawyer, apparently wanting to deflect attention from proceedings that aim to cover a decade of warfare and extraordinary cruelties.

Even from a high-security cell, the former dictator succeeded in briefly dominating the opening session by having his lawyer read a letter saying Mr. Taylor would not “be a fig leaf of legitimacy for this court.”

But as his lawyer walked out, the judges ordered the trial, before the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, to go on.

A panel of four international judges is trying Mr. Taylor, 59, on charges of backing rebels who plunged Sierra Leone, which borders Liberia, into civil war. Prosecutors said “they terrorized, killed and mutilated civilians” on rampages in which weapons were often paid for with locally mined diamonds.

Tens of thousands of people were killed in the fighting, and as many as 500,000 were affected by the rebels’ campaign, which became notorious for rape and the cutting off of arms, legs, ears or noses of civilians to silence dissent.

The war strategies of Mr. Taylor are said to have also caused the deaths of several hundred thousand people in his home country, where he became president in 1997 after leading a guerrilla army, but any crimes in Liberia are not within the mandate of this court. His forces often consisted of child soldiers, who the prosecution said had been indoctrinated and incited through the use of drugs.

Mr. Taylor, the first African head of state to be brought to trial before an international court, faces 11 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes, committed during the Sierra Leone civil war, which lasted from 1991 to 2002.

The long-awaited start of the trial was briefly taken up by procedural wrangling in which the defense lawyer, Karim Khan, and the presiding judge, Julia Subutinde of Uganda, sparred over Mr. Taylor’s absence. Mr. Khan walked out, saying Mr. Taylor had “terminated” his relations with him, even though the judge repeatedly ordered him to stay.

As the formal session began in a courtroom of the International Criminal Court, the prosecution read a nearly three-hour opening statement before the red-robed judges and two public galleries, packed with diplomats, lawyers, human rights advocates and reporters.

Outlining his case, Stephen Rapp, the chief prosecutor, said he planned to show how Mr. Taylor controlled his men, even killing members of his inner circle when he feared they might expose him, and how he obtained arms and ammunition by illegally selling timber and trading in diamonds, which became known as “blood diamonds.” Mr. Rapp said the prosecution would show “how the diamond trade worked.”

He said he would dwell on the fate of children who were taught to amputate limbs and gouge out eyes and were even ordered to kill their parents and to see the army as their new family.

“The crimes are nothing short of enormous,” Mr. Rapp said. While the suffering could never be erased, he said, he hoped that the trial would give the people of Sierra Leone “some small measure of closure.”

Some observers in the gallery said that by boycotting the court session, Mr. Taylor was evidently trying to draw attention to himself rather than to the prosecution’s graphic accounts. During a break, Abdul Rahim Kamara, a human rights advocate from Sierra Leone, said Mr. Taylor’s absence and other actions were “just stalling tactics.”

“But in the end he can’t gain anything, Mr. Kamara said. “He is locked up.”

Mr. Taylor did attend three earlier hearings. During those, he and his lawyer demanded delays to gain more preparation time, better offices and more financing for the defense. Mr. Taylor has declared himself partly indigent, which means that the court pays all of his legal fees, which thus far add up to $680,000, a court official said.

“Here’s a man who has sucked the life blood out of a whole region, emotionally, physically and financially, and he is playing a smoke and mirrors game over money,” said David Crane, former prosecutor of the Special Sierra Leone Court, who signed the Taylor indictment in 2003 and was in the gallery on Monday.

Mr. Crane said court investigations had estimated Mr. Taylor’s personal fortune at $450 million. Mr. Taylor, he added, may not have ready access to his wealth. The Swiss government has frozen several million dollars of it.

The trial is to resume June 25, when the prosecution will call its first witnesses.



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