Fireworks at Day 1 of the Taylor Trial — and an Invaluable New Blog

Fireworks at Day 1 of the Taylor Trial — and an Invaluable New Blog

I intend to follow the Charles Taylor trial on Opinio Juris in the coming months. True international trial junkies, though, will want to add an invaluable new blog to their RSS readers: The Trial of Charles Taylor: International Criminal Justice in the Making. Sponsored by the Open Society Institute, the blog contains daily coverage of the trial, expert analysis, and links to current newspaper articles.

If day 1 is any indication, Taylor’s trial is going to make for excellent political theater. The biggest news: Taylor has fired his attorney and announced that he wants to represent himself. From the blog:

In a dramatic opening to the Charles Taylor trial today, the man long-awaited to face justice in the dock in The Hague failed to show. And his lawyer, Karim Khan, interrupted the opening statement of the Special Court for Sierra Leone’s Chief Prosecutor, Stephen Rapp, by clumsily walking out of the courtroom in defiance of a court order to continue representing Taylor for the day — in an unexpected move, Taylor sacked Khan and asked to represent himself. Rapp, and his Sierra Leonean colleague, Mohammad Bangura, continued to methodically present the prosecution case, reading out prepared statements across the room from an empty defense section — bar the court-appointed duty counsel, Mr. Jallow, who throughout the proceedings continued to sit back in the second row from where Khan originally sat, and three seats back from the gallery. Jallow, from the Special Court ’s Principal Defender’s office, took over on instruction by the Chamber to represent Taylor in the absence of the accused, and after Khan walked out despite a threat of contempt of court by Presiding Judge, Julia Sebutinde.

[snip]

Khan’s presentation was marked by increasing tension with Presiding Judge Sebutinde. She sighed loudly and reprimanded Khan after he interjected without the Court’s permission; she chided him for speaking too fast for the translators; and after he started to walk out of the courtroom during Rapp’s presentation, she told him to take his seat and asserted that “sanity will return to this court” (Khan replied “sanity has never left the courtroom”). She repeatedly asked him to comply with the Court’s order to continue to represent Taylor despite the fact that his client had sacked Khan as counsel.

This increasing tension culminated in a threat of contempt leveled at Khan, as he rose from his seat, collected his books and notes, bowed to the Judges and clumsily tried to open the back door (which was locked). The Judge called him back, but Khan refused to sit and continue, saying he was “not trying to be difficult but to be principled,” apologized to the court for the disruption, and left by a different (unlocked) back door at the far left rear of the courtroom. Five minutes later, a security guard came back and collected Khan’s suit jacket he’d left behind. Only a green highlighter and a stack of papers with yellow post-it notes sticking from the top, remained as a reminder of Khan’s presence. They were gone when the court resumed after lunch.

Taylor’s demand, of course, evokes unpleasant memories of the Milosevic trial, which became a circus after Milosevic began to represent himself. Interestingly, before leaving the court, Khan tried to distinguish Taylor’s situation from Milosevic’s by stating that Taylor acknowledged the jurisdiction of the SCSL (Milosevic refused to recognize the ICTY’s jurisdiction).

I used to be a strong supporter of the right of self-representation, which is specifically guaranteed by Article 14(3)(d) of the ICCPR and recognized by all of the international tribunals — including the SCSL (Article 17). But now I’m not so sure. It’s clear that Milosevic wanted to defend himself only because it made it easier for him to disrupt the proceedings, and there is no reason to believe that Taylor’s desire is any more noble. Indeed, although Taylor now claims to accept the legitimacy of the SCSL, just last year he was less generous:

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor has pleaded not guilty in an international war crimes court after refusing to recognise it.

[snip]

He told the judge, Justice Richard Lussick from Samoa that he refused to recognise the jurisdiction of the court in Sierra Leone.

Stony-faced, dressed in a dark blue suit and a red tie, he pleaded not guilty to the 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity he faces relating to his role in Sierra Leone’s 1991-2002 civil war.

After the 11 counts – which include charges of acts of terrorism, murder, rape, enslavement and use of child soldiers – were read out, Taylor was asked whether he understood them.

He said: “Yes, I do. I think that this is an attempt to continue to divide and rule the people of Liberia and Sierra Leone and so most definitely I am not guilty”.

If Taylor defends himself and the trial devolves into Milosevic II, the international community might need to rethink the right to self-representation — even with the conditions approved by the ICTY Appeals Chamber. For an excellent academic article arguing exactly that, see Michael Scharf’s “Self-Representation versus Assignment of Defence Counsel before International Tribunals,” available on SSRN here.

Don’t change that channel!

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Marko Milanovic
Marko Milanovic

Kevin,n Great post! It is most interesting to see how practically all heads of state who end up before a court follow a similar pattern – challenging the very legitimacy of the court (a tradition started by Goering, who was basically a sub for Hitler at Nuremberg, in more ways than one), and trying to conjure up a picture of defenselessness and victors’ justice by comparing themselves to the enormous forces of the prosecution arrayed against them. With an intelligent and a charismatic defendant this can be a very difficult strategy to deal with, as the Milosevic trial amply proved – it is absolutely essential that the presiding judge and the chief prosecutor be of the necessary authority and demeanor. During the Milosevic trial, for instance, the first presiding judge, the late Sir Richard May, was a perfect man for the job, while the same unfortunately cannot be said about the judge who followed him, who, for example, allowed himself the luxury of actually arguing with the accused. Regrettably, a similar fiasco is about to unfold, to my great regret, at the Seselj trial before the ICTY. Seselj, a Milosevic ally and leader of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, is… Read more »

Kevin Heller
Kevin Heller

Marko,

Oy gevalt! I had no idea. Thanks for the (depressing) update.

Kevin

Matthew Gross
Matthew Gross

I hope the judges keep in mind that given the publicity of such trials, problems of the sort detailed threaten to harm the repute of not only the court, but the very idea of an international tribunal for war crimes.