THE HAGUE, May 4 – Former Liberian president Charles Taylor lost a bid on Monday for his acquittal on war crimes charges in the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which set June 29 as the date for the start of his defence case.
"The (trial) chamber … dismisses the defence’s submission in its entirety," judge Richard Lussick ruled in an application for Taylor’s acquittal at the close of the prosecution case.
Taylor is charged with 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity stemming from his support of Revolutionary United Front (RUF) guerrillas in neighbouring Sierra Leone’s 1991-2001 civil war.
There was evidence on which a court may eventually find that Taylor had been involved in a campaign to terrorise the civilian population of Sierra Leone, during which civilians were killed, raped and mutilated, the judge said.
The 61-year-old has been on trial in The Hague since January 2008 following his arrest in Nigeria and his subsequent handover to the tribunal. He had gone into exile in 2003 in a deal ending Liberia’s civil war.
Evidence showed that he provided arms, ammunition and manpower to the RUF, that he provided moral encouragement and military advice, and that he "facilitated the export of diamonds in exchange of arms," said Lussick in Monday’s ruling.
About 120,000 people were killed in Sierra Leone’s conflict, with rebels mutilating thousands more — cutting off arms, legs, ears or noses.
Taylor is accused of arming, training and controlling RUF rebels, blamed for many of the mutilations, and of being involved in the "blood diamonds" trade.
The former warlord was elected president of Liberia from 1997-2003 after his rebel forces unseated then-president Samuel Doe, but was himself unseated by a rebellion.
The tribunal’s rules of procedure allow for an acquittal at the end of the prosecution’s case, which concluded in January, if the judges are convinced there is no evidence to support a conviction.
But Lussick’s ruling means Taylor’s lawyers will now have to present evidence in his defence.
"The Trial Chamber is further satisfied that during the campaign to terrorize the civilian population, civilians were killed, raped, forced into sexual slavery, subjected to physical violence including amputations and mutilations and were abducted and forced into labour," the judge found.
"The Trial chamber is similarly satisfied that children participated actively in hostilities and that civilian property was pillaged.
"Taken together, the trial chamber finds that there is evidence on which it could find that the accused and others shared a common purpose to take part in a campaign to terrorize the civilian population of the Republic of Sierra Leone."
In January, the 91st and final prosecution witness in Taylor’s trial told judges how he had pleaded with rebels to cut off his remaining hand so they would spare his toddler son.
Lussick also dismissed Monday a request by the defence for a delay in the start of the defence case, setting June 29 as the opening date.
"We are of the view that a reasonable and appropriate date for the start of the defence case is Monday, June 29, 2009," he said.
Taylor’s lawyers have previously indicated that he is likely to be the first witness to take the stand for the defence.
Chief prosecutor Stephen Rapp has said he expected the defence case to conclude by the end of the year.
The Special Court for Sierra Leone, which sits in The Hague, was established in 2002 through an agreement between the United Nations and the Sierra Leonean government.