Charles Taylor lawyer asks for acquittal
Leidschendam - Charles Taylor's lawyer branded the war crimes case against the former Liberian president "neocolonialism" built on circumstantial evidence, calling on the judges at the trial Wednesday to acquit his client on all counts.
In his closing statement, Courtenay Griffiths sought to take apart the prosecution case against Taylor, charging that the trial of the once-powerful West African leader is "politically motivated" to ensure he does not return to power in Liberia.
Taylor, the first African head of state put on trial at an international tribunal, has pleaded not guilty to 11 war crimes and crimes against humanity.
He is accused of arming and supporting murderous rebels in Sierra Leone's civil war in exchange for that country's rich natural resources, and specifically charged with murder, rape, sexual enslavement and recruiting child soldiers.
Sometimes mocking the prosecution's evidence, Griffiths told judges that if they looked at the case in an "independent, reasonable, unemotional way, there can only be one verdict on all these counts and that is... not guilty".
He urged judges not to be swayed by public perceptions of Taylor as a warlord. "A criminal trial is not a beauty contest," Griffiths said. "We are not asking this court to like Charles Taylor."
Taylor faces a maximum life sentence if convicted. Verdicts are expected later this year.
Failed to prove guilt
Atrocities committed during the 1991-2002 war were well documented at the time, and reviewed in painful detail during the lengthy trial by the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone.
But Griffiths said the prosecutors had failed to prove that Taylor was responsible for those incidents.
The prosecution had produced "very little direct evidence to link the accused to the crimes alleged," Griffiths told the panel of international judges. Instead, their case was built on "hearsay, circumstantial evidence and broad assumptions".
"It is to the shame of this prosecution that it has besmirched the lofty ideals of international criminal law by turning this case into a 21st century case of neocolonialism," he said.
Prosecutor Nicholas Koumjian said Taylor maintained a "proxy army" in Sierra Leone in the rebel group Revolutionary United Front, or RUF, which is accused of many of the worst brutalities in the civil war, including the widespread practice of hacking off its enemies' limbs.
Koumjian said Taylor was "uniquely situated as godfather of the RUF." He armed and directed the rebels and profited "from the wars and the crimes they committed", he told judges.
Prosecutors allege Taylor's support was repaid by the rebels in "blood diamonds", mined by slave labourers.
Trained in Libya
Underscoring what he called the political nature of the case, Griffiths questioned why Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was not indicted along with Taylor, suggesting Britain blocked such a move to protect its economic interests in Libya.
In 2008, a key prosecution witness, former Liberian Vice President Moses Blah, testified that he was among about 180 rebels recruited by Taylor and flown to Libya in the late 1980s to undergo months of military training.
Rebels from countries including Gambia, the Philippines and Sierra Leone learned to use AK-47 assault rifles and surface-to-air missiles at a military camp near Tripoli, Blah said.
Gadhafi has never been indicted for training African rebels, but the International Criminal Court last week put him on notice he is suspected of crimes against humanity against his own people in his violent crackdown on anti-government protesters in recent weeks.
Taylor's trial began chaotically 3 1/2 years ago, with Taylor boycotting the proceedings and firing his first lawyer. He argued that he did not have enough time or money to prepare his defence and claimed he was being railroaded to a conviction.
The first of dozens of prosecution witnesses only appeared at the trial in January 2008 after Taylor had hired Griffiths, a Jamaican-born British barrister.
Prosecutors called former rebels to the stand to testify of their encounters with Taylor. In response, the defence case was built around seven months of testimony by Taylor in which he portrayed himself as a statesman who tried to bring peace to West Africa.
The defence presentation was sensationally interrupted by the court's decision last year to subpoena supermodel Naomi Campbell to testify about claims Taylor gave her rough diamonds at a 1997 party at Nelson Mandela's presidential mansion in South Africa.
Campbell said she was given diamonds, but said she did not know they were a gift from Taylor.
Griffiths mocked prosecutor Brenda Hollis for bringing Campbell to court, saying it backfired when she failed to link Taylor to diamonds.
"Ms Hollis was left looking at a bleeding hole in her foot and a smoking gun in her hand saying 'I didn't know it was loaded'," he said.