Charles Taylor is not a war criminal but a peacemaker turned scapegoat by the international community. This was the message put forward by Taylor’s defense in its opening statement today.
Charles Taylor’s lawyer told a packed courtroom today that his client will declare his trial “political” and “set the historical record straight” that he was trying to bring peace, not foment war.
According to Courtenay Griffiths, lead defense counsel, Taylor was a peacemaker. He was acting at the behest of West African states and the United Nations to broker peace between the warring factions in neighboring Sierra Leone, negotiate with rebels to set free abducted UN peacekeepers, and usher one of the most prominent rebel leaders, Sam Bockarie, out of Sierra Leone to help calm the conflict. Taylor took on this peacemaking role as the leader of the “Committee of Five,” a group set up by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) designed to bring peace to Sierra Leone.
Griffiths told the court that the trial was “political” because others who should have answered a case before the Special Court–such as the then Sierra Leonean president, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah–were not indicted. Taylor’s role in the conflict was skewed to suggest he bore the “greatest responsibility” for crimes committed during the war. Griffiths also suggested that Taylor’s indictment suited western powers such as the United States and United Kingdom who wanted “regime change” in Liberia.
Griffiths—a charismatic advocate who infused his opening statement with a quote from Jamaican reggae singer Bob Marley and held up a sign to the public gallery that stated “Charles Taylor is innocent” before the judges entered the courtroom—listed a litany of problems he saw with the prosecution’s case. Griffiths complained that the prosecution’s case was like a “lucky dip” because of its failure to settle on one consistent formula of joint criminal enterprise (a form of criminal liability) in its indictment, questioned the strength of the evidence linking Taylor to the alleged crimes, and stated that he would “expose” the prosecution’s “corruption.”
“Evidence has been bought and secured through favors,” Griffiths said. “Justice cannot be polluted in this way.”
Griffiths also accused former Special Court prosecutor, David Crane, of trying to “scupper” peace talks for Liberia that Taylor attended in Ghana in 2003 by unsealing the indictment against Taylor at the same time. He said Crane later described this move as an effort to “publicly strip this warlord of his power.” Griffiths pondered “such ego and hubris” before quoting a Bob Marley lyric: Crane, he said, was “working iniquity to achieve vanity.”
The central question of the case, Griffiths went on to tell the court, was whether the prosecution could show that Taylor was responsible for the alleged crimes. As Liberian President, not only was Taylor fully occupied with attacks on his own country which would not allow him to “micromanage” a conflict in a neighboring country, but as a West African leader and member of ECOWAS, he was “placed on the frontline” to bring peace to Sierra Leone, Griffiths said.
In an unusual move, prosecutor Stephen Rapp interjected during Griffiths’ opening statement. Rapp objected because the defense was commenting on the prosecution’s case rather than setting out the evidence his team will present. At the time, Griffiths was describing the breakdown of the prosecution’s linkage and crime-based witnesses. The judges overruled the objection. Griffiths called the interjection “rude.”
In a press briefing following the defense’s opening statement, Rapp rebutted claims of corruption and described the legitimate forms of payments that could be made to witnesses to cover costs of testifying, including travel and lost wages. Rapp said the prosecution’s formulations of joint criminal enterprise were fundamentally consistent throughout the case and that Griffith’s “lucky dip” description “mischaracterizes the case from the beginning.” He also refuted the notion that the trial was political, and said that Taylor was on trial because he had a case to answer for serious crimes.
“I am here because of the victims of Sierra Leone–they are the people who suffered,” Rapp told reporters.
Meanwhile Charles Taylor, in a gray suit wearing his signature tinted glasses, sat silently throughout the opening statement, occasionally looking into the public gallery while fiddling with scraps of paper. In highly anticipated testimony, he will take the stand tomorrow as the defense’s first witness.