- The Washington Times - Monday, June 4, 2007

THE HAGUE — Former Liberian President Charles Taylor boycotted the opening of his war-crimes trial yesterday, and his assigned attorney walked out of court in a dramatic opening to the first such case brought against a former African leader.

The trial was ordered to continue anyway, and the chief prosecutor outlined the horrific killings and mutilations of thousands of civilians in neighboring Sierra Leone by forces purportedly under Mr. Taylor’s control from 1991 to 2002.

Defense lawyer Karim Khan said Mr. Taylor had fired him and wanted to act has his own attorney. Mr. Khan walked out even though the presiding judge repeatedly directed him to continue to represent Mr. Taylor, if only for the opening day.

Apologizing and defying threats of contempt of court, Mr. Khan gathered his files and left.

“This is not defense counsel making some cheap trick,” Mr. Khan told the Associated Press outside court. Mr. Taylor “thought this was a railroad to a conviction and in those circumstances, he exercised his right to terminate my representation and to represent himself.”

In presenting his case, chief prosecutor Stephen Rapp told how attackers would randomly kill people and enslave others to use as fighters, miners and farmers. Then “the attackers would mutilate — amputating arms, limbs, gouging eyes,” Mr. Rapp said.

Children were conscripted, and some were forced to kill their own parents, he added.

Mr. Taylor, 59, has pleaded not guilty to 11 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The court has no death sentence and no maximum sentence if he is convicted.

The prosecution made a four-hour opening statement, after which the case was adjourned for three weeks. It was not clear who would be sitting on the defense bench when it resumes June 25. The trial was expected to last 18 months.

Mr. Taylor was not in court yesterday, but in a letter read to judges by Mr. Khan, he claimed he had been prevented from seeing a court official mandated with making sure he is properly defended and that his one court-appointed attorney was heavily outgunned by the prosecution team of nine.

“At one time I had confidence in this court’s ability to dispense justice. Over time, it has become clear that confidence has been misplaced,” Mr. Taylor’s statement said. “I will not receive a fair trial.”

Presiding Judge Julia Sebutinde of Uganda repeatedly interrupted Mr. Khan’s reading of Mr. Taylor’s letter, demanding an explanation for Mr. Taylor’s absence.

“We are not interested in political speeches,” she told the lawyer.

She said Mr. Taylor’s inability to see the court official overseeing defense issues was “worrying,” and that it could delay the trial.

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