The first day back of Charles Taylor’s trial, after a month-long break, was marked by feisty exchanges between Mr. Taylor and lead prosecution counsel, Brenda Hollis, on Monday as she tried to keep a tight grip on the former Liberian president’s answers under cross-examination at the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
“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).
Meanwhile, a debate over the use of “fresh evidence” flared again on Monday, as the two sides clashed over how the test laid down by the judges late last year should be interpreted. The core debate revolves around how new documents should be categorized – by their content or the intended use by the prosecution. The distinction is important and will impact the ease with which prosecutors can use new documents in the courtroom during cross-examination. (If documents are assessed by how the prosecution intends to use them, then documents can be used much more easily as a way of trying to “impeach” (or to discredit) Mr. Taylor’s earlier testimony. If the documents are to be assessed on their content, then the potential for challenges to their use in court are much greater – and the hurdles the prosecution have to jump to use them in court are higher – if the documents contain material which could potentially be used by the judges as going to demonstrate proof of Mr. Taylor’s alleged guilt. (An overview of the background to this debate can be found here: http://www.charlestaylortrial.org/2010/01/10/using-fresh-evidence-what-does-this-mean-with-taylors-trial-restarting/).
After an hour and a half adjournment, the judges decided by majority (not unanimously) that content would be the determining factor.
“Now, as has been indicated before, that decision refers to the content of such documents, not to the intended use by the Prosecution. The Trial Chamber again emphasises this distinction, since the Court has a discretion to use such material as proof of guilt no matter what was the intended use declared by the Prosecution,” presiding judge Richard Lussick said.
“Having said that, the Trial Chamber is not satisfied that the Prosecution has demonstrated either that it is in the interests of justice, or that it does not violate the fair trial rights of the accused to use that material in cross-examination.”
The judges allowed the use of two paragraphs and rejected two paragraphs of the document at issue, demonstrating that the use of “fresh evidence” in the courtroom may continue to be a contested territory as the cross-examination goes forward.
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.”
Prosecutors finished the day with questions about the Lome Peace Accord – a peace agreement signed between the Sierra Leonean government and the country’s main rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in the Togolese capital, Lome, in 1999 — the document which initially triggered the controversy about the use of “fresh evidence” in this case back in November 2009.
Mr. Taylor’s cross-examination is set to continue Thursday, with technical difficulties burdening the court through Tuesday and Wednesday.
(MODERATOR’S NOTE: Again, apologies for the lateness of this report, due to technical factors beyond our control).