The trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor got off to a slow start this week, as technical problems forced a two-day adjournment fresh on the heels of a month-long break. When court resumed on Thursday, prosecutors alleged that Mr. Taylor gave supermodel Naomi Campbell a rough-cut diamond that had been given to him by the Sierra Leone junta regime, which Mr. Taylor denied as “total nonsense.” And in an ongoing battle over the use of “fresh evidence” during cross-examination of the former president, judges did not allow prosecutors to use the document in which actress Mia Farrow made the blood diamond allegations against Mr. Taylor because it could prejudice his fair trial rights.
“Mr. Taylor, that diamond that you sent to Naomi Campbell was one of the diamonds that you had been given by the junta in Sierra Leone. Isn’t that correct?” Lead prosecutor Ms. Brenda Hollis asked Mr. Taylor.
“Total nonsense,” the former president responded.
According to prosecutors, during Mr. Taylor’s 1997 visit to South Africa, he attended a dinner that was hosted by former South African president Nelson Mandela. Also present at the dinner where celebrities such as Ms. Campbell, actress Mia Farrow and popular musician Quincy Jones. Prosecutors have alleged that after the dinner, Mr. Taylor sent his men to deliver the diamond to Ms. Campbell.
“From among the diamonds you took to South Africa, after this dinner that you attended, you sent your men to Ms. Campbell’s room to provide her with a large rough-cut diamond,” Ms. Hollis said.
Mr. Taylor dismissed the assertion as “totally incorrect.”
When Ms. Hollis sought to present a declaration made by actress Ms. Farrow to a member of the court’s prosecution team that Ms. Campbell had relayed to her that Mr. Taylor sent his men to deliver the diamond to her, defense lawyers for Mr. Taylor objected to the use of such document, arguing that while the document was a declaration made by Ms. Farrow to Special Court for Sierra Leone prosecutor, Nicholas Koumjian, there was nothing indicating that the declaration was made under oath or whether it was a sworn affidavit. Mr. Taylor’s lead defense counsel, Courtenay Griffiths, further stated that Ms. Farrow’s declaration that certain guests at the dinner, including Mrs. Mandela, raised concern about the presence of Mr. Taylor at the dinner, meant that the document was prejudicial, and that the best person to have made any statement about the transfer of the the diamond would have been Ms. Campbell herself, not a third party. Mr. Griffiths called the document “third-hand hearsay.”
“This document is complete nonsense. It is ridiculous. It should not be allowed in a court of law. It has no probative value and it is highly prejudicial, and in that situation, any tribunal of fact has the discretion to exclude it on that basis, and I so invite you to do,” Mr. Griffiths told the judges.
Despite prosecution arguments that “this document impeaches that categorical denial by this witness that he ever had any diamonds during the time he was in the NPFL [National Patriotic Front of Liberia] or president of Liberia except that maybe he had a couple of watches that had diamonds,” the judges ruled in favor of the defense, stating that the document cannot be used in the cross-examination of Mr. Taylor.
Reading the order of the chamber, presiding judge Richard Lussick said that “The document allegedly is a statement by a person as to what she was told by a second person who was relating what she was told by a third person or persons. The accused, of course, has had no chance to challenge any of the allegations in this document or cross-examine the alleged makers of the various statements that embodied the document now before the court.We find that the document is highly prejudicial and we hold that the the criteria that are required to be met for the use of the document have not been met. In other words, there is nothing put before us that would allow us to say that its use in cross-examination is in the interest of justice or that it does not violate the fair trial rights of the accused. We therefore uphold the defense objection and will not allow the document to be used in cross-examination.”
Also on Thursday, prosecutors said that when Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels entered into negotiations with the Government of Sierra Leone in 1999, Mr. Taylor sent a negotiating team there to ensure that the peace agreement benefitted the RUF rebels. Mr. Taylor denied the assertion, stating that “I sent an observation team there.”
Ms. Hollis read from a May 2000 Press Release that was issued by Mr. Taylor’s government in Liberia in which it was quoted that the Liberian foreign affairs minister “served as special envoy and chief negotiator at the Lome Peace Agreement.”
Mr. Taylor insisted that “the negotiations that were taking place were only between two parties. Liberia had a team there, Nigeria had a team there only to assist the process.”
Meanwhile, earlier in the week, the proceedings were marked by feisty exchanges between Mr. Taylor and lead prosecution counsel, Ms. Hollis, as she tried to keep a tight grip on the former Liberian president’s answers under cross-examination.
“Mr Taylor, you are a witness and it is your job to answer questions, not to make speeches. Do you understand that?” Ms. Hollis asked.
“I’m the accused. You do not – the judges are going to instruct me. I don’t take instructions from you. There are contexts involved here and this is my life,” Mr. Taylor retorted.
As the two traversed Mr. Taylor’s prior testimony under direct examination over the course of four months last year, Ms Hollis challenged him on topics ranging outside the indictment timeframe and in relation to events in Liberia (not Sierra Leone where the charges are based) — but which nonetheless may go to testing Mr. Taylor’s general credibility as a witness.
Ms. Hollis asserted that Mr. Taylor lied about his involvement in the 1985 coup to overthrow the then Liberian president Samuel Doe (Mr. Taylor rejected this: “I would not lie about it if I was a part of it”); that Mr. Taylor benefitted from money he allegedly embezzled from Liberia while he was in the United States (Mr. Taylor agreed that he had received $100,000 while in the US, but rejected that it was Liberian government money “and it was never proven that I embezzled any money”); and that Mr. Taylor knew rebel leader Foday Sankoh in Libya during the 1980s, well before Mr. Taylor said the two men met in 1991 (“Ms Hollis, I had never in my life met Foday Sankoh before 1991,” Mr. Taylor said).
Prosecutors also tried to cast doubt over the truthfulness of Mr. Taylor’s November 2009 testimony about his decision to step down from the Liberian presidency. Ms. Hollis focused on Mr. Taylor’s description of the impact of an attack by Liberian rebels in 2003 which resulted in deaths of internally displaced people hiding in a targeted building called Greystone – an annex to the United States Embassy in Monrovia located across the street where civilians took shelter from the fighting in Monrovia in 2003. Liberians took 18 dead bodies from this attack to the United States Embassy as a plea for the US to stop the bloodshed and restore peace.
In his November 2009 testimony, Mr. Taylor had asserted that this Greystone attack had triggered his decision to step down from power, as he realized that “they [Liberian rebels] would do anything to get rid of you as President, including victimizing your Liberian civilians, and so you decided to step down as President,” Ms. Hollis said. “Do you remember telling the Court that, Mr Taylor?”
“I remember telling the Court that and most other things that are associated with that, yes, I remember telling them that,” Mr. Taylor responded.
The Prosecutors went on to present evidence that this attack which resulted in 18 dead bodies being carried to the US Embassy in fact occurred in late July 2003, more than a month after Mr. Taylor was at the Accra peace talks where he indicated his willingness to step down from the presidency. In raising the inconsistency in timing, prosecutors were attempting to demonstrate that this attack could not have been the reason why Mr. Taylor decided to quit the presidency.
Instead, Ms Hollis suggested that other West African leaders had pressured Mr. Taylor to step down in Accra – an assertion that Mr. Taylor vigorously denied.
“There was not one Head of State in that room that ever asked me to step down. On my honour, no President ever asked me to step down. I, Charles Taylor, just as I told these judges, volunteered. No one – if anyone in that room had asked me to step down, one, it would have been very much undiplomatic,” Mr. Taylor told the court.
“Presidents don’t just say, “Please step down.” I, Charles Ghankay Taylor, volunteered to step down from office. No one pressured me in that room. No one asked me to at all.”
Mr. Taylor is responding to charges that he was involved in a joint criminal enterprise with RUF rebels in Sierra Leone. Mr. Taylor has denied allegations that he supplied arms and ammunition to the rebels in return for Sierra Leone’s blood diamonds and that he helped them plan certain operations during which atrocities such as rape, murder, and amputation of civilian arms were committed. Mr. Taylor has said that he did not have arms and ammunition to fight rebel forces in his own country and therefore could not have supplied any materials to the RUF. He has dismissed the charges as a scheme by western countries, specifically Britain and the United States to bring him down.
Mr. Taylor’s cross-examination continues on Monday.