Taylor chooses British lawyer for war crimes trial

By Nick Tattersall

FREETOWN- Former Liberia leader Charles Taylor has provisionally chosen a British lawyer from a list of court-approved legal specialists to defend him against war crimes charges in Sierra Leone.

Taylor pleaded innocent on

Monday before a U.N-backed special court to 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for backing Sierra Leonean rebels who raped and mutilated civilians during a 1991-2002 civil war.

In a cell within the Special Court compound in Freetown heavily guarded by U.N. peacekeepers, Taylor has met with legal advisors from across the region in recent days in an effort to choose a defence team for the high-profile case.

“Taylor’s provisional counsel was assigned as of yesterday. He chose someone from the list of qualified counsels,” said Special Court spokesman Peter Andersen.

The lawyer selected by Taylor, Karim Khan, is a specialist in international criminal and human rights law working at the London-based chambers of David Waters Q.C.

He has previously worked as a legal advisor to the United Nations criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. He also acted as a defence council in a war crimes trial for the former Yugoslavia, according to the chambers’ Web site.

Taylor, whose uprising to seize power in Liberia in 1989 turned into a brutal 14-year on-off civil war that spilled across borders, was represented at Monday’s hearing by a staff lawyer from the tribunal, Vincent Nmehielle.

The former Liberian leader’s aides have said Taylor would eventually like Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, one of the world’s foremost civil liberties lawyers, to lead his defence team.

While not addressing the Taylor case Dershowitz, who only accepts a handful of cases each year, says on his Web site he regards the “representation of a guilty and despicable defendent, with little prospect of winning, as a challenge — and, indeed, as one of the highest obligations of my profession”.

A quarter of a million people died in Liberia’s civil war, which Taylor triggered with the uprising to overthrow despotic military strongman Samuel Doe in 1989, but the Special Court charges only relate to Sierra Leone’s parallel civil war.

The charges before the U.N.-backed court accuse Taylor of supplying weapons to Sierra Leone’s RUF rebel force in return for diamonds to fund his regime in Liberia. Taylor denies links with rebels in Sierra Leone, whose war officially ended in 2002.

The U.N.-backed tribunal has asked for Taylor’s trial to be moved to The Hague, citing fears of unrest in Sierra Leone or neighbouring Liberia if he is convicted. Britain circulated a Security Council resolution last week authorising Taylor’s transfer to the Netherlands.

As part of the deal to move the tribunal, the United Nations has approached Sweden and other countries to consider hosting Taylor in one of their jails if he is convicted.

A Swedish jail already holds a former Bosnian Serb president convicted of war crimes in The Hague, Biljana Plavsic, who is serving an 11-year sentence for Bosnian war atrocities. — Reuter