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Africa

Not going to offer war crimes court a fig leaf, says Taylor's lawyer

media Courtenay Griffiths, Charles Taylor's lead counsel Reuters

Charles Taylor’s defence lawyer walked out of the Sierra Leone war crimes court in protest on Tuesday. British attorney Courtenay Griffiths told RFI that the court is a “farce” and riding “roughshod” over his client’s rights. The ex-Liberian president denies 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in Sierra Leone.

Q&A - Lawyer Courtenay Griffiths 08/02/2011 - by Daniel Finnan Listen

What made you decide to walk out of court?

We had filed our final brief last Thursday, only to be told yesterday afternoon that two of the judges have refused to look at it because we filed it 20 days later than we should have done. My point is this, in the context of a trial which has lasted three years, do your listeners think that it is disproportionate for the judges to refuse to hear, in effect, the whole defence case, because we’re 20 days late? They’re cutting out Mr. Taylor from putting forward a defence, and as far as I’m concerned, that is totally inequitable.

Why were you late in filing these final submissions?

Since the date was fixed for when the final brief was to be submitted, a number of issues arose which we felt we had to take up as legal issues before the court. By 14 January, none of those issues had been resolved. Amongst those issues was one very central to our case. Mr. Taylor had, since 2000, being saying that certain powerful countries were out to get him. Then, in December last year, the Guardian newspaper published a couple of cables, one of which emanated from the US ambassador to Monrovia. In effect, it said that the US government would have to do everything within its power to ensure that either Mr. Taylor was convicted or got a long sentence, or if neither of those happy outcomes came about, that steps should be taken to try him in the United States. So, here we had at the last minute confirmation of a central plank of our case. Were we supposed to overlook that? And how were we supposed to serve a final brief when issues as central as that were still outstanding? Tell me, have you ever heard of legal proceedings where your final address to a jury or a court is made when several important legal issues are yet to be decided?

Did you tell the judges that you wanted an extension for the time to file your closing arguments?

We did it on no less than three occasions. The first occasion being right at the start of January, when we suggested that they might consider adjourning the deadline for a few weeks. Not only to give us more time to file our brief, but also to give them more time to properly address the issues we were raising and which were still outstanding. After we told them that we would not be filing until those issues were decided, within a few days we had these rapid decisions by them, none of which truly addressed the issues raised by us. But merely to get them out of the way so we no longer had an excuse to file. Is that the way a court is supposed to operate? Particularly when they’re dealing with a case as grave as this – the first African leader ever put on trial – what kind of example is this setting? Are African people, with only Africans currently awaiting trial before the ICC, supposed to look at this standard of justice, given this primary example?

You are asking for closing arguments to be rescheduled prior to a final ruling. How hopeful are you?

What I’m asking for is a right to appeal to the Appeals Chamber, for them to consider whether it was equitable and just for our trial chamber to refuse to look at our final brief by a majority. Frankly, I am not prepared to provide a fig leaf to this court whilst they ride roughshod over my client’s rights. What am I suppose to do, sit in court and give some kind of credibility to what’s going on when I know that it’s a farce? I’m sorry, this is not the way in which a trial as important as this should be conducted and I’m not going to be party to it.

How do you feel about possibly being ruled in contempt of court and receiving a fine or prison sentence?

It’s for the judges to decide whether they think it’s the right thing to do, to be considering such punitive measures against me. That’s out of my hands, if they wish to go ahead with that. There’s nothing I can do about it.

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