Interview: Charles Taylor’s Lead Defense Counsel, Courtenay Griffiths

Unless expressly stated otherwise, the findings, interpretations and conclusions expressed in this interview are not necessarily those of OSI and OSI does not take a position on the content or accuracy of these findings, interpretations and conclusions.

This interview took place on Friday October 17, 2008

Monitor: Good morning Mr. Griffiths, thank you for giving me the opportunity to have this interview with you for I first would like to ask you some questions about your personal background, where are you from?

Griffiths: I was born in Jamaica but I have lived in the United Kingdom since the early sixties. I came to the UK when I was five years old and grew up in Coventry, the Midlands.

Monitor: Where did you study law?

From school I went to the London School of Economics where I studied law and then qualified at the bar and I have been practising in the area of criminal defense since 1980.

Monitor: Where did you work before you became Lead Defense Counsel to Charles Taylor?

Griffiths: I have been operating as a criminal Defense barrister in the United Kingdom for the last 28 years. I have been involved in a number of high profile cases in the United Kingdom such as the trial of Winston Silcot & others charged with the murder of police constable Blakelock during riots on Broadwater Farm in the early nineteen eighties. I have also been involved in the first Damilola Taylor trial, a number of high profile IRA trials and terrorist trials. (Note Monitor: for more information on the background of Courtney Griffiths, see

Monitor: Have you defended other persons who are or were tried before the Special Court?

Griffiths: No, this is really my first venture into the area of international criminal justice. I was instructed briefly, very briefly to represent a member of the RUF in the RUF trial, but I only remained with that particular client less than a week. (Note monitor: this was Morris Kallon)

Monitor: Why do you think it is important for Charles Taylor to be well represented for his defense?

Griffiths: I think that this whole area of international criminal law has suffered an image problem in the past because all of the international tribunals which have been set up, it is almost as if the defense have been an afterthought and that the concentration and the emphasis has always been on prosecution which gives the impression that these are in effect Kangaroo Courts where the verdict is a foregone conclusion. And often times if you are a Milosevic or you are a Charles Taylor, before you arrive in these Courts, the media at large have already suggested that you are guilty. And it seems to me imperative in those situations that individuals like Milosevic and like Taylor have the best defense available if the whole area of international criminal justice is to gain any kind of credibility worldwide.

Monitor: Can you tell us, in broad stroke, what we can expect to hear in terms of the lines of Taylor’s defense argument?

Griffiths: The defense arguments are of course dictated by the live issues raised during the course of the prosecution case and so far as those live issues are concerned it’s whether or not they can prove that Taylor either ordered, controlled, financed, encouraged, whatever way you want to put it, what happened in Sierra Leone. That’s what they have to prove and what we have to disprove and of course our lines of defense will be dictated by that.

We now have had more than 60 Prosecution Witnesses on the stand, of a total of about 100, after which the Defense will present its witnesses. Is the list of Defense witnesses already complete or are new names still being added?

Griffiths: It’s rather premature for me to make any statement about the number of defense witnesses. It is something which we have constantly under review. Furthermore we will only know for sure precisely what the case is we have to meet, once the prosecution case has finished. Once we have been able to assess in its totality that case and further more once the judges have made a decision on our 98bis application to dismiss some or all of the charges. So we’ll have to wait until then to come to a final decision.

Monitor: Is it possible to divide the Defense witnesses into categories, and if so, into which categories?

Griffiths: It’s not really possible to divide them into any kind of categories. What I can say quite confidently, is that Mr. Taylor will give evidence. I’m sure that is what everyone will be looking forward to.

Monitor: Are you content/satisfied with the resources, financial and otherwise, that the Special Court has assigned to the Defense?

Griffiths: I’m often led to believe that our Defense is one of the best funded there has ever been in an international tribunal. Well, if our Defense is well funded, then I can well understand why these international tribunals have developed a reputation for being Kangaroo Courts biased totally towards the Prosecution. Because, when one compares the resources that are available to us compared to the resources which are available to the Prosecution, there is no equality of arms whatsoever. Vast resources have been made available to them over several years. Everybody knows my team has only come on board in August of last year. Some members of the Prosecution team have been working on this case for five years or more. And so that alone shows the disparity between the two teams of lawyers. We are four lawyers working for us. Last time we counted the Prosecution were deploying something like eight different lawyers in Court. And in terms of the investigative facilities they have got much more facilities than us. In the case of the amount of money they have available to pay witnesses, again they have vastly greater resources than we have. So no, I am not happy at all with the amount of resources we have.

Monitor: What does the Defense need to have a more equal balance between the Prosecution and the Defense?

Griffiths: Well, it would help to have more money, for example to enable our international investigators in particular to travel. And also for people like myself to travel, because there are individuals within Africa and elsewhere in the world whom I would like to go and meet. Not because my international investigators are not capable of going, but oftentimes it is the measure of respect you show to an individual who goes along to meet that individual for the first time. If for example you were Thabo Mbeki, you would be expecting Mr. Taylor’s Lead Counsel to come and talk to you about his case. But because of a lack of resources 1) I can’t afford the time to leave The Hague, 2) the travel costs involved would prove prohibitive given the limitations of our budget. So for a number of reasons our investigative possibilities are somewhat constrained.

Monitor: In Court you have recently informed us about the extra security measures imposed by the Dutch authorities on Mr. Taylor during transportation to and from the building of the ICC (International Criminal Court) in The Hague where this trial of the Special Court is located. As the judges have informed us, these extra security measures were not due to any misconduct or misbehaviour on the side of Mr. Taylor, but were due to reasons beyond this Court’s and Mr. Taylor’s control. Can you tell us if these extra security measures have been lifted yet?

Griffiths: Those measures are still in place. And it is still the case that the measures were not imposed because of anything done by Mr. Taylor. It was very much to do with other detainees within the detention facility and as far as we are led to understand those detainees weren’t even from the African continent.

Monitor: Have the Dutch authorities informed the Court what it will take or what needs to be changed before these extra security measures will be lifted?

Griffiths; Well, they haven’t told us and it would be difficult for them to tell us given that it wasn’t because of anything done by Mr. Taylor in the first place to justify this. So consequently it is apparent that changes have to take place which have nothing whatsoever to do with Mr. Taylor and that’s what will dictate when the Dutch authorities would be minded to lift these restrictions.

Monitor: What is the Registry doing for Mr. Taylor in this respect? And are they, in your opinion, doing enough?

Griffiths: Well, there could always be a greater effort. The registry have suggested to us that they are taking steps to try and solve the situation and I know for a fact that the Registrar has met with senior members of the Dutch Intelligence and Security Services to discuss the matter. But effectively now we are told that we have to take it to the President of the Special Court for Sierra Leone because effectively no one has power over the Dutch authorities to compel them to change the provisions in this particular respect.

Monitor: Recently prosecution witnesses have started to testify under Rule 92bis of the Rules of Procedure and Evidence of the SCSL, meaning that they can give their testimony in writing, so they will not be examined by the Prosecution, however they must be prepared to be cross-examined by the Defense, and when so called for, be questioned by the judges. Can you tell us if the Defense will be cross-examining all the prosecution witnesses who testify under this rule or will the Defense only cross-examine a certain number of these witnesses? I think last Wednesday your co-counsel Terry Munyard already lifted a little tip of the veil as he did this morning in regard to witness TF1-081, stating that this prosecution witness did not need to come to The Hague to be cross-examined. Can you tell us more?

Griffiths: Basically, Rule 92bis is a measure which is employed to increase the efficiency of the proceedings and basically the position is that where a witness’s evidence is not in dispute and is capable of agreement between the parties that rather than transport that individual half way across the globe to give evidence, that evidence can be accepted by the Court as read in effect. Part of the difficulty we’ve had over the old 92bis issue is that my experience and practise was that where a Prosecutor wanted agreement on certain core facts which would be on dispute he or she would distil that witness’s evidence to its core features, which would then be presented to the other side for agreement. What has happened in this case is, the Prosecution that handed us reams of transcripts from previous proceedings where these witnesses had been cross-examined on behalf of other defendants and consequently what was being put in cross-examination was relevant to their cases and not in the case of Mr. Taylor. And effectively they wanted all of those transcripts to go in. Now that would have ended up with us agreeing not merely to the core fact “I was raped on this particular date on this particular location”, but I would be agreeing to cross-examination on behalf of Issa Sesay’s sake, relevant to him, which might prove, rather than being crime based evidence to being linkage evidence with Mr. Taylor. We were not prepared to do that. What I expected the Prosecution to do, was to be much more discriminate and to look at the transcripts and say to us: “These are the portions of the evidence of this witness that we’re interested in, you can forget the rest”, but they didn’t do that. And consequently we, I think quite properly, objected to this indiscriminate introduction of transcripts from previous proceedings, where hidden amongst the detail might be material which they would later turn around and say: “We rely on this as linking Mr. Taylor with what happened in Sierra Leone”. And then when you turn around and object and say: “Well, this was supposed to be crime based evidence”, they would turn around and say: “Well, you agreed it”. And that was the danger. As a consequence, because of their refusal to be more discriminate, we have this sad spectacle of agitated individuals and rape victims, being transported to The Hague to give evidence and the core aspects of their evidence are not being challenged by us. Which is why we were able to get through something like a dozen crime base witnesses in the space of four and a half days this week. Because the core of the accounts being given by these individuals for the most part can not be challenged by us. Because Mr. Taylor was not on the spot in Makeni when a particular individual was raped. So how can Mr. Taylor tell me, “Well Mr. Griffiths, you ought to be challenging that account given by that individual”. We are in no position to do that. So, all I was expecting from the Prosecutors was: “X was raped on this occasion in that location on this date in Kono”. We can’t dispute that. Agreed. That would have saved the poor woman having to travel all the way from Sierra Leone to relive that terrible emotional experience. Because we defend Mr. Taylor and declare him innocent of these charges, it doesn’t mean that we are somehow insensitive to the suffering which actually took place in Sierra Leone. We are human too. We don’t enjoy the spectacle of people breaking down on the witness stand, because they are having to relive the most horrific experiences. We don’t enjoy that. It’s an emotional roller coaster for us as well. And anything which could have avoided that spectacle, we were willing to agree to.

Monitor: Due to an order in a previous trial before this Court, some of these prosecution witnesses are category one witnesses, meaning that they are not listed as ABC witnesses mutatis mutandis entitled to protective measures. So these category one witnesses can not have protective measures unless the Defense does not object to these measures. Most of these witnesses have been prepared to testify in open court without protective measures. Some however, were only prepared to testify with certain protective measures. The Defense has objected to these measures and the witnesses, I believe so far two witnesses, later reduced to one witness (because in the end, prosecution witness TF1-215 was prepared to testify without protective measures), have not been prepared to testify in open court without protective measures. Why did the Defense object?

Griffiths: Well, on principle. Because most of these protective measures were imposed by a blanket order made, I think if memory serves, in July 2004, and basically, this was at a stage before any of the trials had begun, and in effect, the Prosecutors had gone ex parte to the Court and had said: “Look, Sierra Leone is a fairly small country. If these people’s details come out, they could be intimidated. So effectively, the order imposed by the Court hen covered the whole of Sierra Leone, without specifying any particular individual. Now the consequence of that was, that if we as the Defense, went unwittingly and spoke to someone, the Prosecution could turn around and say: “You have no right to do that. That person is covered by the blanket order made by the Court in 2004″. So effectively, if the breath of that order had stood, it would mean that we couldn’t talk to anyone in Sierra Leone, because we wouldn’t know whether that individual was a Prosecution witness or not. That was the mischief that we were seeking to address. It was because the order was so wide that it covered everybody. It created three categories, that if a witness falls into this category, irrespective of whether the witness is identified or not, that witness was entitled to the following protective measures. So they’d had obtained this blanket order before they had even identified the people they wanted to speak to.

Monitor: So it’s not just a list of names of individuals attached to an order from the Court?

Griffiths: No, in effect, they created three categories. If you are a rape victim, you fall into category A, and you are entitled to this, this and this. If you are B, you are a child soldier and you are entitled to this, this and this. And C referred to linkage witnesses. So it doesn’t matter if the person isn’t named. Once you fall into that category, irrespective of whether you say I need those protective measures or not, you get them automatically. Automatically we could not speak to anyone for fear of breaching an order because the order was so wide. So you couldn’t go up and speak to anyone. I couldn’t go up and speak to a female in Sierra Leone and say: “Were you a rape victim”, because effectively, whether that person was named in the order or not, potentially she could be. So potentially I could be in breach of that order.

Monitor: Are you familiar with our site and do you ever visit the site?

Griffiths: I am familiar with the site and I have visited it on more than one occasion and initially at least, the site was very anti Charles Taylor. I think the reports more recently have become have become a bit more balanced and I hope things remain that way.

Monitor: how recent?

Griffiths: Well, I think over the last couple of months or so it’s become a lot more balanced in its coverage of the trial.

Monitor: The goal of our site is to provide access to information about the trial for West-African journalists and journalists in general and anyone who is interested in the trial, especially in West-Africa. Do you think this site contributes to that goal?

Griffiths: Well, I hope so. Any information which manages to reach the people of West-Africa about this trial is to be welcomed because it is the first African head of state to be put on trial. And I think this trial has ramifications for all of Africa and the third world. Because the bottom line is, international criminal justice as it is currently conceived, there is nothing international about it at all. It tends to be targeted solely at particular groups, indeed, at a particular continent. Which is why it is not surprising that all of those indicted before the International Criminal Court are from Africa. Surprise, surprise. And more recently it was declared by the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, that the President of Sudan ought to be indicted. And so one of the jokes here in this building is that it’s not the International Criminal Court, it’s the African Criminal Court and that’s the standing joke. We know that the United States do not consider themselves subject to the ICC and in fact, have done their utmost to try and undermine it. So, consequently we have what is ostensibly an International Criminal Court from which the most powerful country on the planet feels that they are above that law. And their citizens shouldn’t be tried in that Court. Now, I was always led to believe as a law student that the rule of law meant that whether you are the President of Liberia or the President of the United States, the law stands above you. Until that principle is established globally, then, this whole idea of international criminal justice is being used in a very partisan way. And I think the people of Africa ought to be made aware of that.

Monitor: Do you have any suggestions to improve our site or are there areas you would like to see covered by the site?

Griffiths: Well, I would like to see you speak more to people on the ground in West Africa to get their views on what they think about the trial. They are in the best position to say: “What am I learning from this experience? To what extend is it relevant to my life? To what extend are the millions spent on setting up a Special Court justified?” When we had an amputee come to Court yesterday (October 16, 2008) and say: “What is being done for us on the streets of Freetown? We are having to beg to survive.” We know this Court is costing millions to maintain. And if I were a Sierra Leonean I’d like to be in a position to voice a view about that. So that’s why I think it would be good if you could connect with people on the ground. And I think one of the ways in which this site could be improved would be to speak to some of these witnesses after they have given their evidence, because there could be no suggesting at that point that you would be seeking to interfere with the course of justice in any way or perverting their account, because they have already given evidence. And many of them now have agreed to give evidence without protective measures. So I think it would be good for some of them to be given the opportunity to voice their wider concerns to a much wider audience. Given the example of the amputee yesterday, who movingly told us how little is being done for them and their plight within Sierra Leone. I would like to see that get out to a much wider audience than just a few people who were in the Court room that afternoon. He deserves a platform to have his voice heard. And I think you ought to approach the Prosecution and the WVS and say to them: “Would you be willing to say to these witnesses once they have given their evidence: would you be prepared to speak to a wider audience about the experiences you have had?”, and see what they have to say.

Monitor: Interesting suggestion… Thank you for this interview!


  1. From the outset, I always thought that the conflict in Liberia was the invention of outside influences, but then others jumped on the bandwagon to impliment their own agendas whereas Charles Taylor would habor the blame for all the atrocities visited upon the Liberian people. But supporting an armed struggle in Sierra Leone seems a little far fetched, especially when he couldn’t control what his own forces did in Liberia. Remember the break away of Prince Johnson which led to the eventual capture and killing of Samuel Doe? People, we are certainly entitle to our own opinions, but not our own facts…..follow the facts and the truth will be learned!

  2. Welldone Mr. Griffiths, i have been following the trial of Charles Taylor since you opened your defense. Am convienced that your client is a victim of international politics. I feel very slighted when i hear people say the reason for the constitution of this court is because Africans have no capacity- atleast within the purview of their legal system to address issues of human right abuses and war crimes. It beats my imagination as to how crimes that were allegedly committed in Africa are being tried by a court sitting in Europe, prosecuted by American and European prosecutors and adjudicated by judges the presiding one being a European?

    I understand fully that sometimes by invoking the universality principle, war crimes and their likes can be tried anywhere, but when it involves Africans why can’t the trial and all the dramatis personae be Africans? Don’t we have competent prosecutors in Africa? As these crimes were allegedly committed in Africa, is Africa lacking of competent judges to adjudicate on these matters? Who are the funders of these court? Is it not true that he who pays the piper detects the tone? Why is George Bush not being tried for violating the UN Convention Against Torture for the atrocities committed in Guantanamo Bay? Indeed even justice can sometimes be an ass!

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