Taylor Trial: U.S. Fears Delay, But Control Limited

WASHINGTON — As the war crimes case of former Liberian President Charles Ghankay Taylor generates headlines, little attention is being given to the financial mechanics upon which the fate of the special tribunal trying Taylor will hinge.

Presently, the United States is the top contributor to the Special Court Tribunal of Sierra Leone (based in The Hague), so far giving about $35 million for the tribunal to exist and operate.

But that doesn’t mean the U.S. State Department has any direct say on how the proceedings will go forth in bringing to justice to Taylor, who is charged with crimes against humanity stemming from his support of rebels known the world around for chopping off the arms, legs, ears and lips of Sierra Leone’s citizens.

During a recent telephone interview with World Politics Review, Mark Stamilio, a special advisor in the U.S. State Department’s Office of War Crimes Issues, explained that despite the financial backing it has committed, the United States is merely part of a management committee that oversees the Sierra Leone tribunal’s efficiency.

Donor Fatigue

While he noted the committee can only make recommendations and is not a ruling body of the court, Stamilio did assert that “the court is very well-aware of donor fatigue,” and “if they do not stick to a timeline, they know the court will hurt financially.”

He added that the United States has contributed to the tribunal “without strings attached,” although there is evidently concern among the management committee over how efficiently the money will be spent, and future funding could depend on the speed at which the Taylor case plays out.

The management committee, according Stamilio, has requested the court to provide a completion strategy for all ongoing cases, including the Taylor case, which is expected to take in 18-24 months.

It remains to be seen whether the United States will continue to back the court if the Taylor case does not move that quickly. (It’s worth noting that the trial of another war crimes suspect, Slobodan Milosevic, carried on for some five years without resolution before the former Yugoslav President died in his cell in The Hague in 2006).

Regardless, Stamilio said that by 2009, he expects donor fatigue will become an immanent problem for the Sierra Leone tribunal.

Stalling Tactics

Whether or not Taylor is aware of the court’s financial urgency to bring him to justice, his defense so far appears intent on trying to boycott the entire process.

When his trial opened in early-June, Taylor asserted that he was refusing to show up for opening arguments because his single court-appointed defense lawyer was unfairly outnumbered by the court’s prosecution team.

In a letter written by Taylor and read aloud by his then defense attorney Karim Asad Ahmad Khan, the former Liberian President said that he intends to represent himself.

After reading the letter, Khan exited the courtroom and presiding Judge Julia Sebutinde, apparently frustrated, said that opening arguments in the case would begin with or without Taylor or his appointed counsel present.

A recent World Politics Review exclusive on the proceedings maintained that the “confused opening session had many court watchers worried that this high-profile trial will follow the same trajectory” as the Milosevic trial.

The antics were likely a stalling tactic by Taylor, according to Stamilio, who said Taylor’s assertions “are simply not true,” and that Taylor “has gotten more facilitated support than any war crimes defendant has ever received.”

“It’s simply a staged spectacle to derail the proceedings,” said Stamilio. “The defense’ number one strategy is to delay.”

If found guilty, Taylor could face a sentence of life in prison. Death sentences are precluded by the rules under which the Sierra Leone tribunal is designed.

Annie Frank is a graduate of Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. She is a summer 2007 international news intern for WPR and her dispatches will occasionally be featured on this blog. Her last dispatch focused on the rise of Eurasia.