Charles Taylor’s defense lawyer Courtenay Griffiths stormed out of court this morning after telling the Special Court for Sierra Leone judges that the defense was not prepared to take part in the closing arguments of the trial scheduled to commence today.
The Court had been scheduled to hear closing arguments this week from both the prosecution and the defense. However, when the court began proceedings this morning, Mr. Griffiths informed the judges that because they had refused to accept the defense final trial brief, it was not in the best interest of his client for him to continue to take part in the proceedings.
“We do not think it will be appropriate to take part in the oral submissions…and we have Mr. Taylor’s instructions in that regard,” Mr. Griffiths told the judges.
He added that based on the present circumstances, the defense team cannot in “[their] professional view…adequately represent the accused’s rights.”
Just yesterday, the judges issued a ruling that the defense final trial brief would not be accepted because it had been filed after the required deadline of January 14, 2011. Based on a previous scheduling order, both the prosecution and defense were required to file their final trial briefs by January 14, which was to be followed by the closing arguments this week. However, while prosecutors filed their final trial brief by the required deadline, defense lawyers refused to do so. In their view, there were certain important outstanding motions and appeals before the Trial and Appeals Chambers of the Court that needed to be decided. Any decisions on these motions and appeals would have an impact on the content of the defense final trial brief, defense lawyers had argued.
On Tuesday, February 1, the judges delivered their decision in the last of the outstanding motions and immediately after that, defense lawyers filed their final trial brief. As all parties were preparing to commence closing arguments today, the judges by a majority ruling (Justice Julia Sebutinde dissenting) issued a decision yesterday evening in which they rejected the defense final trial brief because their original orders requiring parties to file final briefs by January 14 had been flouted.
In her dissenting judgment, Justice Sebutinde opined that exceptional circumstances in this case required that the defense be made to delay their final trial brief and to reject this brief would have an impact on the fair trial rights of the accused. Justice Sebutinde also stated that while the judges had stated January 14 as the required date on which to file final trial briefs, the defense filing on February 1 was still within the stipulated time since the Rules of Procedure and Evidence of the Court provide that a party shall file a final trial brief at least five days before closing arguments. She therefore expressed the view that the majority of judges should have used their discretion to allow the defense to file their final brief.
With this decision by the majority, the defense went into closing arguments today without having filed a final trial brief. For this reason, Mr. Griffiths stated that he would not take part in the proceedings.
“Our very presence in court is incompatible with representing Mr. Taylor’s interest…and it is our intention at this point, both Mr. Taylor and I, to withdraw from the court at this point,” Mr. Griffiths said.
Chief Prosecutor Brenda Hollis in her submission to the court told the judges that it was not for defense counsel and the accused to determine whether they want to be in court on not. They are required to be in court, she told the judges.
“There is no right of any accused to determine if and when they will abide by orders of the court,” Ms. Hollis said.
“The accused is not attending a social event. He may not RSVP at the last minute. He is the accused at a criminal proceeding,” she added.
Despite being cautioned by the judges, Mr. Griffiths decided to walk out of the proceedings, saying, “I have made a decision, so is my client, that we intend to leave.”
After stating that Mr. Griffiths might be held in contempt of court for his actions, the judges ordered prosecutors to continue with their closing argument.
Mr. Taylor stayed in court for the first part of the the prosecution’s closing argument, but when court resumed after the morning adjournment, he did not return to court.
Presiding Judge of the Chamber, Justice Teresa Doherty said that Mr. Taylor had “deliberately blighted” the court’s orders and that the proceedings would continue in his absence.
Prosecutors continued with their oral submission, telling the judges that Mr. Taylor bears the greatest responsibility for the crimes committed by the rebels forces in Sierra Leone. Prosecutors summarized the evidence of prosecution witnesses that point at Mr. Taylor’s alleged command and control of Sierra Leonean rebel forces and his alleged involvement in the diamond trade for arms and ammunition during Sierra Leone’s 11 year civil conflict.
Prosecutors in their submission stated that Mr. Taylor and Revolutionary United Front (RUF) leader Foday Sankoh had two ultimate goals: to take control of the territory and people of Sierra Leone, and to control the country’s resources, especially its diamonds.
When court resumes tomorrow, no one knows whether defense lawyers will be present to take part in the closing arguments. If they are absent, the judges will determine what will happen going forward.