Sierra Leone war crimes court to hear defense closing arguments

Sierra Leone war crimes court to hear defense closing arguments

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[JURIST] The appeals chamber of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) [official website] ruled [judgment, PDF] Thursday that the trial can accept the final brief of former Liberian president Charles Taylor [case materials; JURIST news archive] and that his lawyers can make closing arguments. The SCSL postponed [JURIST report] closing arguments last month in order to let the defense appeal a ruling that denied admission of a defense document due to untimely filing. The court’s decision to postpone closing arguments was preceded by a boycott of the proceedings [JURIST report] by Taylor and his lawyers in protest of the court’s decision to refuse to accept a written defense brief that was filed 20 days late. The appeals chamber decision rests on the concern that Taylor did not understand that the legal consequence of his lawyer’s decision to walk out of the trial was a waiver of his right to give closing arguments. The court expressed its concerns for fundamental fairness and justice if it could not be establish that Taylor “knowing[ly], intellig[ibly] and voluntar[ily]” waived his right to present a closing argument:

Had it been established that the Accused understood and agreed with the representations of the actions of his Counsel … then there would have been no error in concluding that the Accused has forfeited his opportunity to file a final trial brief. … However, in the face of the silence of the Accused, … the conclusion that the Accused had waived his right to have his final argument considered was an error of fact, which, if uncorrected, could occasion a miscarriage of justice. To rule otherwise would be to disadvantage the uninformed Accused for the actions of his Counsel, which would be unfair, particular as there are other means by which the Trial Chamber can sanction Counsel without affecting the Accused’s fundamental rights.

Taylor’s lawyer now faces disciplinary sanctions for last month’s walkout and, arguably, for his misrepresentation of Taylor’s instructions to do so. The appeals chamber also instructed the trial court to expeditiously set a date for the closing arguments.

Taylor is charged with 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity and has denied all allegations [JURIST report] against him. Charges include [indictment, PDF] murder, rape, sexual slavery and acts of terrorism, all stemming from from a “campaign to terrorize the civilian population” of Sierra Leone. Taylor’s defense lawyers, who began presenting their case [JURIST report] in July 2009, have claimed that he could not have commanded rebel forces in Sierra Leone while acting as the president of Liberia. His trial continued after the court denied his motion for acquittal [JURIST report] in May 2009. Although Taylor’s trial is coming to an end, prosecutors previously expressed concern that the defense’s list of 256 witnesses could make the trial last up to four additional years [JURIST report].