LEIDSCHENDAM, Netherlands (Reuters) - The defence lawyer for former Liberian president Charles Taylor defied the Sierra Leone war crimes court on Tuesday, walking out in protest ahead of closing arguments in the case and calling it a farce.
Taylor, the first African ruler to stand trial for war crimes, is charged with instigating murder, rape, mutilation, sexual slavery and conscription of child soldiers during a brutal civil war in Sierra Leone. He denies the charges.
Defence lawyer Courtenay Griffiths stormed out after judges at the Special Court for Sierra Leone ruled on Monday against allowing the defence to file a final 600-page document because they had missed a Jan. 14 deadline to submit it.
Presiding judge Teresa Doherty warned Griffiths he risked being ruled in contempt, a charge carrying a fine or prison sentence.
“Our presence in court is incompatible in representing the interests of the accused,” Griffiths said.
“It’s a complete farce given that judges won’t have the foundational information enclosed in our written submission,” Griffiths later told reporters outside the court.
The shock exit, a reminder of the start of the trial in June 2007 when Taylor refused to attend, cast a shadow over Tuesday’s hearing, where prosecutors were due to start giving final arguments in a case that has lasted more than three years.
The walkout did not significantly slow proceedings. Prosecutors presented evidence to show Taylor directed Revolutionary United Front rebels in a campaign of terror against civilians in Sierra Leone.
After Griffiths walked out, Taylor had remained in court as guards told him that judges were ordering him to stay, but he did not reappear after the morning break.
Claire Carlton-Hanciels, a court-appointed defence representative, told judges Taylor was upset and needed some rest and had voluntarily absented himself from the hearing.
In 2009 former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic boycotted the start of his war crimes trial at the Yugoslavia tribunal, demanding more time to prepare.
Griffiths has questioned the Sierra Leone court’s impartiality, citing leaked U.S. diplomatic cables he says suggest Taylor’s prosecution was politically motivated.
Although the court admitted two cables as evidence, it refused to investigate them and Griffiths requested time to respond to the leaked cables in his final document.
The U.S. ambassador to Liberia, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, wrote in a March 10, 2009 cable released by WikiLeaks that if Taylor was acquitted or given a light sentence, his return to Liberia could “tip the balance in a fragile peace”.
“The international community must consider steps should Taylor not be sent to prison for a long time,” she wrote.
Justice Richard Lussick challenged Griffiths’ actions.
“If Taylor thinks he can ... disobey orders at will, then he is running this court, not us,” Lussick said. “You’re not running the court you know,” he added.
Prosecutor Brenda Hollis said “the accused is not attending a social event. He cannot RSVP at the last moment.”
Griffiths told reporters he had appealed Monday’s ruling preventing him from lodging his final document and warned he would boycott proceedings until the appeals chamber judges ruled on the issue. That ruling could take place this week.
Griffiths is asking for closing arguments to be rescheduled prior to a final ruling in the case, expected later this year.
“The credibility of the final decision is going to be seriously undermined if these judges have not listened to our defence arguments,” Griffiths said.